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‘Jamming’: How Electronic Warfare Is Reshaping Ukraine’s Battlefields

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Drones have become a critical weapon for both sides, but a lack of coordination among troops has put Ukraine at a disadvantage.

Wearing immersive goggles, a soldier who goes by the call sign DJ, flew a First Person View drone from an underground bunker in Ukraine’s Donetsk region. Credit…David Guttenfelder for The New York Times

The Ukrainian soldier swore and tore off his headset. His video monitor had gone blurry at first, the landscape of shattered trees and shell craters barely visible, before blacking out completely. The Russians had jammed the signal of his drone as it was flying outside the town of Kreminna in eastern Ukraine.

“Some days everything goes smoothly, other days the equipment breaks, the drones are fragile and there is jamming,” said the soldier, who goes by the call sign DJ and was speaking from his underground outpost a few miles from the front line.

For a while, the Ukrainians enjoyed a honeymoon period with their self-detonating drones that were used like homemade missiles. The weapons seemed like an effective alternative to artillery shells for striking Russian forces.

Now, the bad days are starting to outweigh the good ones: electronic countermeasures have become one of the Russian military’s most formidable weapons after years of honing their capabilities.

Electronic warfare remains a hidden hand in much of the war, and like Ukraine’s disadvantage in troop numbers and ammunition supplies, Ukraine suffers in this area as well in comparison to Russia. Russia has more jamming equipment capable of overpowering Ukrainian signals by broadcasting on the same frequencies at higher power. It also exhibits better coordination among their units.

Members of a drone unit assembled the aircraft and armed them with rockets inside a destroyed house on the frontline.Credit…David Guttenfelder for The New York Times

With western military aid looking far from certain and artillery ammunition running low, the pressure on Ukraine’s unmanned air capacity has only grown, leaving Kyiv’s forces in an increasingly perilous position.

Interviews with Ukrainian soldiers, commanders and military analysts say that Russia’s jamming capabilities are straining Ukraine’s limited supplies of off-the-shelf drones and threatening to sideline a key component of Ukraine’s arsenal as the Kremlin mass produces its own fleet of drones.

Ukrainian troops describe a back and forth dance where one side makes technological changes — such as using different frequencies or jamming devices for drones — then the other side catches up in a matter of weeks or months, undercutting any short-lived advantage.

“There is a constant arms race,” said Babay, a sergeant in charge of a drone platoon on Ukraine’s eastern front, who, like DJ and others interviewed for this article, went by his call sign, as is military protocol. “We are improving our technology to counter these new realities on the battlefield, and in a while, the Russians will again have to invent something new to be able to defend themselves against our attacks.”

Small, cheap drones have been a staple of the conflict in Ukraine since 2014, when Russian-backed separatists attacked in the country’s east. But in 2022, when Russia launched its full-scale invasion, the use of the unmanned vehicles over the battlefield ballooned.

In 2023, Ukraine gained the upper hand in the drone war by deploying the compact racing drones known as FPVs, for First Person Views, in large quantities.

Ukrainian soldiers from the 21st Brigade building drones at a small kitchen workshop in Ukraine’s Kreminna region.Credit…David Guttenfelder for The New York Times

“FPVs play a critical role for us, as these toys are essentially mobile artillery that compensate for the lack of artillery ammunition,” said Dyadya, a drone operator with the 63rd Mechanized Brigade. “We work at the same distance as a mortar, but our accuracy is much higher.”

Artillery’s strength often comes from its imprecision. By blanketing wide areas with high explosives and fragmentation, it can quickly disrupt battlefield operations by maiming troops and destroying vehicles. It’s a tactic that is near impossible to replicate with one or two drones.

As Ukraine’s artillery ammunition dwindled last fall and into the winter, the FPVs, used as guided projectiles, were effective in suppressing and harassing Russian trenches and vehicles. Precious artillery ammo was reserved to push back Russian ground attacks.

But the Russian military has since improved its jamming capabilities and also uses poor weather to its advantage, advancing in fog and rain when drones have difficulty flying.

“Both sides have quickly picked up on their adversary’s key FPV developments and tactics,” said Samuel Bendett, an expert on Russian military drones at the Center for Naval Analyses, a research organization based in Virginia. “And now these technologies are maturing very rapidly for both sides.”

Earlier this month, DJ’s small team, part of a national guard unit known as the Bureviy Brigade, set up their drone outpost among the ruins of a farmhouse near the frontline outside of Kreminna. They deployed the essentials needed to broadcast video and relay commands from the pilot to the cheap Chinese made FPV quadcopter: antennas, frequency relays, Starlink satellite internet and a laptop computer.

DJ, left, and a soldier named Tomas set up their drone outpost among the ruins of a farmhouse outside of Kreminna.Credit…David Guttenfelder for The New York Times

On the first two missions, DJ’s monitor showed the Ukrainian steppe below as his drone catapulted through the wilderness at upward of 60 miles per hour, strapped with roughly three pounds of high explosives and aimed at destroying Russian vehicles. But soon, the signal was lost, jammed by the Russians.

The third mission, targeting a grenade launcher in a Russian trench line, was partially successful: The $500 dollar drone detonated in a tree above the trench, but it had been jammed just a dozen or so yards away before it exploded.

Though potent, the Russian military’s jamming capabilities are deployed unevenly across the more than 600 miles of frontline, and their armored vehicles are often easy targets because they usually don’t have jamming systems installed, Ukrainian soldiers said.

Ukraine’s approach to drones and electronic warfare has been funded and supplied in part by disparate groups outside of the military, including the country’s well-known IT sector. Each drone unit on the battlefield serves as a sort of test lab for new technologies, procurement and combat missions.

Russia’s approach has been far more top down, with heavy military oversight. This has made the country’s drone fleet more predictable, with less variation in tactics and type. But it has also allowed the Russian military to jam Ukrainian drones on the battlefield without having to jam their own, by coordinating between flight paths and the jammers.

“There is nothing like that on the Ukrainian side,” said one drone operator flying for Ukraine.

As Ukraine’s artillery ammunition dwindled, drones were effective in suppressing and harassing Russian trenches and vehicles.Credit…David Guttenfelder for The New York Times

The lack of a broader command structure capable of coordinating drone units across the frontline often translates to confusion among Ukrainian troops. Drone operators can sometimes lose connection with their craft and end up looking through the camera of another drone.

FPV drones fly on an analog frequency, and since many are store bought, they come out of the box set to the same frequency. Ukrainian drone units often need soldiers who are skilled in coding to change the frequency on a drone’s software.

Dev, a Ukrainian drone technician, rated this issue second in significance to Russian jamming capabilities.

“There are many FPV groups operating at the front. The front is saturated with FPV groups, and there are no more frequency channels,” he said.

Last month, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky established the Unmanned Systems Forces, a new part of the armed forces that, among other things, should improve the interaction of FPV units with one another.

A Ukrainian soldier from the 63rd Brigade flies a drone with an attached blue battery pack and dummy bomb at a testing site.Credit…David Guttenfelder for The New York Times

But Russia’s ability to mass produce its drones on an industrial scale is also a pressing problem. Ukrainian troops said they are often forced to scrounge for their drones, despite pledges from the government to produce thousands of them.

Chef, a drone company commander in Ukraine’s east, said his unit flies about 20-30 FPV missions a day, depending on their supply of the drones, which comes almost entirely from volunteer donations. The government has barely supplied his unit, he said. Last July, they received a handful of them, and then again in December.

“We launch as many as we produce,” he said. But “you can’t just use FPVs to win this war.”

Dzvinka Pinchuk contributed reporting.

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