By Paul Mozur and Aaron Krolik
Drones began crashing on the Ukrainian front lines, without further explanation.
For months, aerial vehicles delivered by the German technology company Quantum Systems had operated without problems for the ukrainian army. They soared through the air to spot enemy tanks and soldiers in the country’s war against Russia. But late last year, in an abrupt change, the machines began falling from the sky upon their return from some missions.
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“It was a mystery,” said Sven Kruck, a Quantum executive who received a grim letter from Ukraine’s Defense Ministry demanding he solve the problem.
Quantum Engineers It didn’t take them long to identify the culprit: the Russians interfered with the wireless signals connecting the drones with the satellites they used for navigation, so the machines didn’t know where to go and collapsed. To adjust to this situation, Quantum developed software operated by artificial intelligence whose function was to act as a kind of secondary pilot and added a manual option so that the drones could be landed with an Xbox controller. Additionally, the company built a service center dedicated to monitoring electronic attacks from Russia.
“The only thing we could do was get information from the operators, try to figure out what wasn’t working, test and try again,” Kruck explained.
In the invisible space of electromagnetic waves a fiery war rages battle in ukraine, in which radio signals are used to overload communication links with drones and soldiers, locate targets, and fool guided weapons. These tactics, known as electronic warfare, have become a game of cat and mouse between Russia and Ukraine, quietly marking changes in the momentum of the sides in the 21-month-old conflict and forcing engineers to adapt.
“Electronic warfare has affected the fighting in Ukraine as much as the weather and terrain,” said Bryan Clark, a researcher at the Hudson Institute, a Washington think tank. He added that, currently, all conflict operations must take into account the enemy’s actions in the electromagnetic spectrum.
The war in Ukraine It is the first recent conflict between two large and relatively advanced armies that has included the application of electronic warfare components and has evolved techniques in real time. Now, frontline infantrymen are aware of technologies that were once known only to trained experts. Ukrainian drone pilots indicated that they continue to refine their methods to avoid invisible attacks. Some said that one day a new radio frequency might work. The next day, a different antenna.
Tactics are now of such importance that electronic warfare was given a separate section in a recent essay by General Valery Zaluzhny, the highest-ranking military commander in Ukraine. “The widespread use of information technology in military matters” will be key to breaking the impasse that the conflict with Russia has become, he wrote.
The techniques have transformed war into a prototype laboratory that United States, Europe and China have been closely monitored to identify what could influence a future conflict, experts said.
Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, addressed the issue of electronic warfare this year in remarks prepared for a congressional hearing. NATO countries have expanded programs to buy and develop electronic weapons, said Thomas Withington, an electronic warfare expert at the British security-focused research center. Royal United Services Institute.
“The war in Ukraine has been the performance-enhancing drug for NATO electromagnetic thinking,” he said. “It has been the topic that concentrates minds.”
Antennas and jammers
During the advance of Russian tanks toward Kiev, Ukraine, in February 2022, the Russian Army initially lived up to its reputation as one of the world’s best nations at electronic warfare. It used powerful jammers and decoy missiles to overwhelm Ukrainian air defenses, leaving Ukraine with only aircraft to combat the Russian planes.
Electronic weapons do not seem dangerous at first glance. These are typically satellite dishes that can be mounted on trucks or installed in fields or buildings. The problem is that, once installed, they emit electromagnetic waves to track, deceive and jam sensors and communication links that are used to guide precision weapons and enable radio communication. Virtually all communications technologies use electromagnetic signals, whether it’s soldiers with radios, drones to connect with their pilots, or missiles to communicate with satellites.
After its initial successes with these tools, the Russian military faltered, according to analysts. But as the war has dragged on, Russia has innovated by making smaller mobile electronic weapons, such as anti-drone guns and tiny jammers, which form a bubble of radio waves at the perimeter of trenches.
“The Russians have been more adept at responding than we expected based on their actions on the ground,” explained James A. Lewis, a former U.S. official who writes on technology and security issues for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “That should worry NATO.”
The Kremlin did not respond to our request for comment.
Soviet vs. startup
To combat Russia’s century of Soviet know-how in electronic attack and defense, Ukraine has turned to a start-up approach associated with Silicon Valley. The idea is to help the country’s technology workers quickly manufacture electronic warfare products, test them and ship them to the battlefield.
This summer, the government of Ukraine organized a hackathon in which it asked participating companies to find a way to block Iranian Shahed drones, long-range unmanned aerial vehicles that have been used to attack cities in the country’s interior, said Mykhailo Fedorov, the minister of digital affairs. from Ukraine.
At test ranges outside kyiv, drone makers pit their craft against electronic attack weapons. In a field in central Ukraine in August, Yurii Momot, 53, former commander of the Soviet Union’s special forces and founder of the company specializing in Piranha electronic warfarepresented a new handheld anti-drone system created for the conflict.
The performance of these systems in war has been rocky, but Momot’s version worked. He pointed the gun at a cheap, common model DJI Mavic reconnaissance drone and fired. The drone hovered motionless after a burst of radio signals from the weapon overwhelmed its navigation system.
“The system as a whole is more structured in Russia”Momot said of Russia’s electronic warfare program, which he knows from his time with the Soviet Army. “We are making progress to reach them, but it will take a while.”
Other Ukrainian companies, such as Kvertus and Himerathey build tiny jammers or $100 walkie-talkies capable of withstanding the Russian blockade.
In Infozahystone of the largest electronic warfare contractors in Ukraine, a group of engineers was recently working on a project to track and identify Russian air defense systems. Yaroslav Kalinin, CEO of the company, indicated that it is not as easy to replace Russian anti-aircraft radars as tanks. But if it were possible to eliminate enough of them, it could be a turning point in the war.
“As soon as we have control of the air, it will be a tremendous failure for Russia,” he said.
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