Over the past year, the Ukraine war has served as a prominent showcase for the crucial role of drone technology in contemporary warfare, resulting in a flurry of countries scrambling to procure UAVs for their own defense forces.

During the early phases of the Ukraine war, drones, specifically the famed Turkish TB-2, played a vital role in halting the progress of Russian armored units.

The globally circulated images and videos captured by UAVs provided compelling evidence of how the coordinated use of UAV technology, in conjunction with artillery and air defense units, could effectively obstruct the progress of opposing ground forces.

The war also showcased the versatility of commercially available drones, as they were employed for a wide range of tasks, including surveillance, intelligence gathering, and even carrying out targeted attacks on enemy soldiers.

This demonstration highlighted the diverse capabilities of commercially accessible drones, which were utilized in both reconnaissance missions and offensive operations, significantly impacting the nature of warfare on the battlefield.

However, the Russian forces swiftly responded to the modern threats posed by drone technology and successfully implemented a comprehensive layered defense system.

This defense network comprised various short, medium, and long-range defense systems, effectively neutralizing the menace caused by the drones.

Meaning, the rapid progress of drone technology is accompanied by a corresponding advancement in anti-drone technology. As drones continue to evolve, so do the measures developed to counter their potential risks and threats.

Jack Watling, a distinguished expert and senior Research Fellow specializing in Land Warfare and Military Sciences at RUSI (Royal United Services Institute), has elucidated the concept of the trade-off between survivability and cost when it comes to drones.

Watling highlights the dichotomy between inexpensive yet vulnerable drones versus expensive but resilient ones.

This analysis underscores the strategic decision-making process faced by military planners and policymakers when considering the procurement and deployment of drone systems, taking into account their effectiveness, durability, and overall value for money.

According to Jack Watling, several methods can be employed to down unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). These methods include:

Jamming and hijacking their control frequencies: By interfering with the communication signals between the operator and the UAV, it is possible to disrupt or take control of the drone remotely.

Denial of satellite navigation: UAVs often rely on satellite signals for navigation and positioning. By denying or manipulating these signals, it becomes difficult for the drone to navigate accurately, potentially causing it to lose control or become disoriented.

Saturation of their electronics: Overwhelming the electronic systems of UAVs with high-intensity signals or electromagnetic interference can disrupt their operation or even cause them to malfunction.

Shoot downs: Physically targeting and shooting down UAVs with anti-aircraft weapons or other means remains a viable option to neutralize airborne threats.

According to Jack Watling, a significant number of UAV losses in the Ukraine war were DJI drones. These drones are primarily commercial UAVs without any additional hardening or enhanced protection. DJI, as a company, incorporates “defeat mechanisms” in their drones to comply with export regulations and ensure their usability by civilians.

This design choice enables law enforcement agencies to maintain control over these drones when necessary.

However, in a military conflict like the Ukraine war, the lack of hardened features and built-in defeat mechanisms made these commercial UAVs more vulnerable and prone to being compromised or destroyed.

Watling said that an important rule to follow is to refrain from using publicly available firmware and software to operate UAVs, as they can be easily exploited by the enemy.

Instead, employing proprietary or secure systems reduces the risk of unauthorized access or control by adversaries.

He also advises regularly patching and updating the UAV system. By doing so, the drone becomes a constantly evolving target.

One potential approach to counter-jamming is by implementing a frequency-hopping software-defined radio (SDR) in the UAV. This technology allows the drone to continuously change its operating frequency, making it more difficult for jammers to disrupt the communication link.

However, deploying such advanced SDR systems can be costly. As an alternative, another strategy is to program the UAV to revert to pre-existing orders in case of jamming or communication disruption.

This means that the drone would autonomously continue its mission based on the instructions it received prior to the jamming incident.

Satellite Navigation Vs Inertial Navigation

Watling highlighted the potential vulnerabilities associated with relying solely on satellite navigation for UAVs. He pointed out that satellite navigation systems can be intentionally manipulated or disrupted through spoofing or jamming techniques.

To mitigate these risks, he recommended integrating inertial navigation as an alternative navigation method.

Inertial navigation relies on onboard sensors to measure the drone’s movements and calculate its position based on that data.

A Russian soldier carrying an Orlan-10 drone

It is independent of external signals and can provide reliable navigation information even in the absence of satellite signals.

However, to ensure the effective functioning of inertial navigation, it is crucial for the UAV to be equipped with the capability to detect when its satellite navigation signals are being interfered with.

By detecting interference, the UAV can avoid relying on potentially compromised satellite navigation and switch to using inertial navigation as the primary or backup method.

This awareness is crucial to prevent situations where the UAV mistakenly follows instructions like “return to base” but ends up landing in a location near the enemy due to unreliable or manipulated satellite navigation signals.

Why are Iran’s Shahed-136 Drones Proving Hard to Bring Down?

Watling provided insight into the navigation capabilities of Iranian drones, highlighting their use of inertial navigation.

He pointed out that Iranian UAVs, as an example, often employ multiple antenna arrays, typically numbering four or five. These arrays are designed to compare signals received from different satellite navigation systems such as Glonass, Galileo, GPS, and Beidou.

By comparing the readings from these various satellite systems, the Iranian drones can assess if there are significant discrepancies or variations among them.

This allows the UAVs to identify potential anomalies or inconsistencies in the received signals. Additionally, the drones also compare directional signals to detect any conflicting or contradictory information.

Iranian Shahed-136 drones

By employing these techniques, Iranian UAVs aim to enhance their navigation reliability and accuracy. By cross-referencing signals from multiple satellite systems and analyzing directional information, they usually mitigate the impact of spoofing, jamming, or other forms of interference that may affect a single satellite system.

In the event that these UAVs receive conflicting signals from satellite navigation systems, they employ inertial navigation as a fallback option.

Using this method, the UAV calculates its speed and altitude based on its previous known position and incorporates additional sensor data to validate its current position.

The accuracy of the inertial navigation system improves with the inclusion of more sensors, although this also increases the cost of the UAV, Watling added.

Saturation Of UAV Electronics

An adversary could choose to overload the electronics as a countermeasure against inertial navigation. By identifying the UAV’s specific chips, they can intentionally saturate targeted areas of the electronics, potentially leading to their failure.

To address the problem of overloading UAV electronics, shielding is a viable solution. However, it can add weight and bulkiness to the UAV, impacting its size and power requirements. Larger UAVs are more easily detected and vulnerable to being shot down due to their increased radar cross-section.

Evading detection and interception involves strategic route planning, utilizing terrain for concealment, and the skill of the pilot. Intelligence on enemy positions is crucial for effective route planning.

Jamming can be countered through route planning that avoids areas of intense interference and exploits gaps between jammers.

Here is the shield around the ‘brain’ of a Shahed-136Jack Watling

Skilled pilots play a vital role in enhancing UAV survivability, but reading electromagnetic surveys requires specific expertise, necessitating pilot training. Generating real-time electromagnetic surveys may require satellite constellations and advanced software integration.

Opting for cheaper UAVs increases the risk of losses, as protective measures become costlier. For instance, hardening the electronics of the Shahed-136 doubled its price.

Decent inertial navigation and accompanying sensors contribute to effective UAV performance, but they come with higher costs and manufacturing complexities.

Watling concluded by emphasizing the dynamic and evolving nature of UAV and Counter-UAV operations.

He advised against relying solely on a single system, highlighting the importance of implementing multiple tiers of capabilities. By adopting a flexible approach and continuously developing these tiers in response to the changing threat landscape, a more effective and adaptive strategy can be achieved.

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