In Ukraine war, a race to acquire smarter, deadlier drones

By OLEKSANDR STASHEVSKYI and FRANK BAJAK

July 14, 2022

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Drone camera footage defines much of the public’s view of the war in Ukraine: grenades quietly dropped on unwitting soldiers, eerie flights over silent, bombed-out cities, armor and outposts exploding in fireballs.

Never in the history of warfare have drones been used as intensively as in Ukraine, where they often play an outsized role in who lives and dies. Russians and Ukrainians alike depend heavily on unmanned aerial vehicles to pinpoint enemy positions and guide their hellish artillery strikes.

But after months of fighting, the drone fleets of both sides are depleted, and they are racing to build or buy the kind of jamming-resistant, advanced drones that could offer a decisive edge.

The urgency was reflected by the White House’s disclosure Monday that it has information that Iran will be rushing “up to several hundred” unmanned aerial vehicles to Moscow’s aid. Iranian-supplied drones have effectively penetrated U.S.-supplied Saudi and Emirati air-defense systems in the Middle East.

“The Russian drone force may still be capable, but exhausted. And Russians are looking to capitalize on a proven Iranian track record,” said Samuel Bendett, an analyst at the CNA military think tank.

Meanwhile, Ukraine wants the means “to strike at Russian command and control facilities at a significant distance,” Bendett said.

The demand for off-the-shelf consumer models remains intense in Ukraine, as do efforts to modify amateur drones to make them more resistant to jamming. Both sides are crowdfunding to replace battlefield losses.

“The number we need is immense,” a senior Ukrainian official, Yuri Shchygol, told reporters Wednesday, detailing the first results of a new fundraising campaign called “Army of Drones.” He said Ukraine is initially seeking to purchase 200 NATO-grade military drones but requires 10 times more.

Outgunned Ukrainian fighters complain that they simply don’t have the military-grade drones needed to defeat Russian jamming and radio-controlled hijacking. The civilian models most Ukrainians rely on are detected and defeated with relative ease. And it’s not uncommon for Russian artillery to rain down on their operators within minutes of a drone being detected.

Compared with the war’s early months, Bendett now sees less evidence of Russian drones getting shot down. “The Ukrainians are on the ropes,” he said.

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Deadly secret: Electronic warfare shapes Russia-Ukraine war

By OLEKSANDR STASHEVSKYI and FRANK BAJAK

June 4, 2022

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — On Ukraine’s battlefields, the simple act of powering up a cellphone can beckon a rain of deathly skyfall. Artillery radar and remote controls for unmanned aerial vehicles may also invite fiery shrapnel showers.

This is electronic warfare, a critical but largely invisible aspect of Russia’s war against Ukraine. Military commanders largely shun discussing it, fearing they’ll jeopardize operations by revealing secrets.

Electronic warfare technology targets communications, navigation and guidance systems to locate, blind and deceive the enemy and direct lethal blows. It is used against artillery, fighter jets, cruise missiles, drones and more. Militaries also use it to protect their forces.

It’s an area where Russia was thought to have a clear advantage going into the war. Yet, for reasons not entirely clear, its much-touted electronic warfare prowess was barely seen in the war’s early stages in the chaotic failure to seize the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv.

It has become far more of a factor in fierce fighting in eastern Ukraine, where shorter, easier-to-defend supply lines let Russia move electronic warfare gear closer to the battlefield.

“They are jamming everything their systems can reach,” said an official of Aerorozvidka, a reconnaissance team of Ukrainian unmanned aerial vehicle tinkerers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of safety concerns. “We can’t say they dominate, but they hinder us greatly.”

A Ukrainian intelligence official called the Russian threat “pretty severe” when it comes to disrupting reconnaissance efforts and commanders’ communications with troops. Russian jamming of GPS receivers on drones that Ukraine uses to locate the enemy and direct artillery fire is particularly intense “on the line of contact,” he said.

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Tripwire for real war? Cyber’s fuzzy rules of engagement

By FRANK BAJAK

February 14, 2022

BOSTON (AP) — President Joe Biden couldn’t have been more blunt about the risks of cyberattacks spinning out of control. “If we end up in a war, a real shooting war with a major power, it’s going to be as a consequence of a cyber breach of great consequence,” he told his intelligence brain trust in July.

Now tensions are soaring over Ukraine with Western officials warning about the danger of Russia launching damaging cyberattacks against Ukraine’s NATO allies. While no one is suggesting that could lead to a full-blown war between nuclear-armed rivals, the risk of escalation is serious.

The danger is in the uncertainty about what crosses a digital red line. Cyberattacks, including those that cripple critical infrastructure with ransomware, have been on the rise for years and often go unpunished. It’s unclear how grave a malicious cyber operation by a state actor would have to be to cross the threshold to an act of war.

“The rules are fuzzy,” said Max Smeets, director of the European Cyber Conflict Research Initiative. “It’s not clear what is allowed, what isn’t allowed.”

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