- Written by Jonathan Bell
- Defense Correspondent, Eastern Ukraine
As Ukraine prepares for its major offensive, it will be difficult to hide the build-up of force from Russian forces. So Ukraine must find ways to confuse the enemy.
In a trench on the Eastern Front, a Ukrainian mortar team knows that Russia isn’t just trying to go after them with drones – it’s also using electronic warfare to try to pinpoint their positions.
The men of the 28th Brigade in Ukraine may have access to 21st century technology — satellites, smartphones and tablets — to help with communication and target designation. But they also use a tool from the distant past.
An artifact that is never lost in the trenches of World War I: an old telephone.
Vlad and his men pick up the field phone whenever they are about to fire a mortar. His faded ring emits a sound from a bygone era. For outgoing calls, it should end up with a handle. It’s like a scene from a black and white movie.
Vlad grabs the cables that lead to other nearby trenches. He says it’s the safest way to communicate and “it’s impossible to hear.”
Vlad says Russian electronic warfare systems can detect and intercept cellphones and radios, but he points to his old field phone: “This technology is very old – but it works well.”
So far, Russia’s conventional forces have performed poorly and suffered heavy casualties, but they still have some of the world’s most advanced electronic warfare systems — the invisible means of tracking the enemy and intercepting or blocking communications.
In static defensive positions, they would make the Ukrainian advance more dangerous and difficult. Russian Zoopark radars can locate artillery fire. Its Zhitel vehicles detect, track and block radio frequencies, while Borisoglebsk-2 can disable satellite communications such as GPS.
Russia’s use of electronic warfare also makes it difficult for the Ukrainian military to launch drones – key to getting a bird’s-eye view of the battlefield.
Elsewhere on the Eastern Front, Oleksiy and the 59th Brigade’s drone intelligence unit use cover from a bombed-out building to fly their small Chinese commercial drone to locate Russian positions.
At the beginning of the war, Ukraine seemed the most suitable for its use. But now, Oleksiy says, “the sky is full of drones.” He says that the Russians also use the same models, but they have more. though he believes they “couldn’t care less about them”.
Oleksii says he has already lost five small Chinese-made drones and that his battalion “may lose three to four drones a day.” He says the enemy has access to wireless electronic warfare stations and anti-drone guns that “can transmit interference and disrupt communications” to disable their drones.
But in expert hands, he adds, a small commercial drone like the Mavic can last “two to three weeks.”
They do their best to avoid detection – using encryption and changing the geolocation of their drone. The person flying over the Russian trenches uses a VPN in Australia, which means they appear to be flying over the entire southern continent. But he says disguises don’t always work.
In contrast, Ukraine’s efforts to shoot down Russian drones may be crude, as we saw in another situation.
Ukrainian forces point to a drone flying high in the distance. It’s the Orlan – a larger Russian-made drone that can do surveillance or intercept communications. This time he scouted the nearby Ukrainian defensive positions to direct artillery fire.
We hear the sound of shells before seeing the collision and smoke rising from afar.
The response of the neighboring Ukrainian forces was to open a volley of bullets skyward, from their machine guns. But the Russian drone is too high. In this case, their fire is useless.
At a nearby command post, Bohdan of the Ukraine 10th Brigade expressed frustration at not being able to do more. He says Russian drones fly “every day, every hour, every second. They have the resources for that. We fight it but not as often as we would like.”
Although, the big screen behind him shows that Ukraine can still do the same — even if it must now treat its drones as expendable items of war.
We watch live video of a Ukrainian drone flying over nearby trenches. Russia may have the advantage of electronic warfare and more drones – this will be a challenge for the next Ukrainian attack.
But Russia has not yet been able to control the skies, nor to overcome Ukrainian resistance and ingenuity.