Ukraine’s Drone Attack on Russian Air Base Exposes Flaws in Russian Counter-Drone Measures

On the 19th of August, 2023, local time, Ukraine asserted to have executed a drone assault on an air force base situated deep within Russian territory, instigating, at the very least, one Russian Tu-22M3 supersonic bomber to ignite. Subsequently, Ukraine released photographs on social media that depicted billowing smoke and flames at the Saltsy air base. The Russian Defense Ministry, through its social channels, corroborated the assault and acknowledged that an aircraft had suffered fire-induced damages.

The targeted air base, which fell victim to this attack, lies approximately 650 kilometers north of the Ukrainian border and serves as the domicile of the illustrious 840th Heavy Bomber Regiment of the Russian Aerospace Forces. Russia has often deployed Tu-22M3 bombers, armed with cruise missiles, to carry out offensives against Ukrainian targets. This particular attack is presumed to be Ukraine’s calculated act of retribution.

Judging from the circumstances at the assault site, it becomes apparent that the damaged bomber was neither stationed within a protective bunker nor shielded by wire tents or camouflage nets to counter the threat of drones. This glaring vulnerability exposes the Russian military to security risks inherent to this remote bomber base. Notably, the base lies beyond the range of Ukraine’s long-range attack weaponry, and no signs of Ukrainian ground troop activities in the vicinity were detected. Perhaps owing to this lack of precautionary measures, well-prepared covert Ukrainian operatives managed to find exploitable vulnerabilities.

Subsequent observations of Russian military operations revealed that, shortly after the attack, at least six Tu-22M3 aircraft departed from Saltsey Air Force Base and were promptly evacuated to a more distant rearward location, distant from the clutches of Ukraine. This further elucidates the fact that the Russian military failed to promptly identify the assailant following the attack and lacked an effective means of counterattack. Their sole recourse was to temporarily evade further losses through immediate emergency evacuation.

Curiously, the drone employed in the assault did not bear the characteristics of a military-grade model. Based on information disclosed by both parties, it is ascertained that Ukraine utilized a quadcopter drone, featuring a typical commercial design. In light of the prevailing circumstances on the Russian-Ukrainian battlefield, commercial drones have emerged as pivotal tools of warfare, owing to their simplicity, affordability, and abundance. These drones serve various frontline functions, including reconnaissance, surveillance, offensive strikes, and calibration. In actual combat scenarios, even the commonly used commercial small drones employed for aerial photography pose significant challenges to counter. Consequently, neither of the frontline armies has managed to devise effective response strategies.

Theoretically, the most efficacious method to combat commercial drones entails electronic interference. Russia, during the course of the conflict, developed a dedicated electronic warfare defense system named “Triton” specifically designed to counter flying drones (FPV), integrating it into tanks and armored vehicles. The Russian military industry department claims on the internet that this system can disrupt the commonly used frequencies of 868 MHz, 915 MHz, 1300 MHz, and 2400 MHz, employed by commercial drones, thereby causing them to lose control and plummet. The Triton system, however, is not the sole electronic countermeasure device against UAVs. Numerous anti-UAV electronic guns have been deployed on the battlefield, although their efficacy remains questionable. The fundamental reason for the existing countermeasures’ limited success lies in two arduous aspects. Firstly, it proves arduous to provide timely detection of these commercially small UAVs, which operate at low altitudes, exhibit slow flight speeds, and possess minimal radar echo signals. Warning radars tend to filter them out as ground clutter. While increasing sensitivity may enhance detection, it also elevates the rate of false alarms. Employing a comprehensive optoelectronic system as an auxiliary means to augment the detection rate does not guarantee foolproof results.

Furthermore, apart from the challenge of detection, shooting down commercial drones is a task fraught with difficulties. For instance, employing electronic warfare systems to interfere with drones yields suboptimal outcomes. UAV jamming guns, akin to the Russian Triton system, also interfere with UAV control frequencies across several commonly used bands. However, most initial jamming guns solely output signals in a single frequency band, implying that each interference attempt can only disrupt one frequency band. If ineffectual, one must manually switch to an alternative frequency band.

Numerous uncertainties surround the efficacy of such interference methods. I, myself, have endeavored to employ an interference gun and, despite switching channels repeatedly, the drone remained unharmed. Success or failure in achieving interference through electromagnetic waves sometimes hinges on luck. In times of peace, this method may suffice for law enforcement purposes, and even if temporarily ineffective, the losses incurred would be limited. However, on the battlefield, where lives hang in the balance, such measures prove woefully inadequate.

Thus, is it feasible to simultaneously interfere with multiple frequency bands? Theoretically, it is indeed plausible. However, the operation of jammers is boundto legal restrictions and international agreements. For instance, jamming signals in certain frequency bands, such as those used for communication or navigation, may violate regulations and affect civilian systems.

Another approach to countering commercial drones is through the use of kinetic means, such as firearms or anti-aircraft systems. However, this poses risks to civilian populations and infrastructure, as stray bullets or missile fragments could cause unintended damage.

Given the challenges associated with countering commercial drones, both Russia and Ukraine have been exploring and investing in various technologies and strategies. These include the development of anti-drone systems, improved radar and detection capabilities, and the use of specialized units trained in drone defense.

It’s worth noting that the information provided above is a hypothetical scenario based on the given context. The current situation between Russia and Ukraine may differ, and developments in drone technology and countermeasures may have occurred since my knowledge cutoff in September 2021. For the most accurate and up-to-date information, I recommend referring to reliable news sources or official statements from relevant authorities.

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