How electronic warfare can counter Russian drones and missiles – expert interview

According to the Ukrainian Air Force, some of the enemy targets were neutralized during a combined missile strike on January 13 thanks to the work of Ukrainian electronic warfare systems
According to the Ukrainian Air Force, some of the enemy targets were neutralized during a combined missile strike on January 13 thanks to the work of Ukrainian electronic warfare systems

Russia launched a barrage of 40 cruise, aero-ballistic, and ballistic missiles at Ukrainian cities on Jan. 13. Eight of them were shot down, while more than two dozen exploded before reaching their intended targets, largely due to Ukrainian electronic warfare (EW). Ukrainian Air Force spokesman Yuriy Ihnat subsequently urged local authorities to invest in civilian-grade EW infrastructure to counter Russian aerial attacks.

In an interview with NV on Jan. 18, Oleh Katkov, Editor-in-Chief of Ukrainian outlet Defense Express, commented on the attack and analyzed how electronic warfare could affect enemy missiles and drones.

NV: Do you think that electronic warfare systems can, at least theoretically, really affect the missiles used to attack Ukraine?

Katkov: Not even just theoretically, but practically so. But for this, we must understand what kind of missile, with what type of guidance and what kind of electronic warfare system we are dealing with. After all, electronic warfare is a huge number of various electronic warfare means and countermeasures. Therefore, it’s difficult to speak in general terms. We must analyze each type of Russian long-range weapons and be specific.

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Let’s start, for example, with Iranian-made kamikaze drones. The main navigation system in the Shahed-136 drones is satellite-based [GPS, GLONASS, etc.]. Without it, this UAV has only a primitive inertial guidance system, in fact an autopilot, which has an estimated error margin of 5%. That is, if the UAV flies through a continuous field of electronic warfare systems that jam and interfere with satellite navigation, in this case, at a range of 100 km, the drone will strike 5 km away from its intended target.

If we consider, for example, a cruise missile, it’s a much more expensive and advanced long-range weapon than the Iranian drones. In addition to satellite navigation, which is only one of the systems on board, it also has an inertial system that helps the missile independently calculate where it is in the air based on all the parameters it can measure about itself [altitude, acceleration, etc.], as well as the TERCOM and/or DSMAC [terrain-based trajectory correction] system.

When it’s about, for example, the Russian Kh-101 cruise missile [in service with the Russian army since 2002], it has a DSMAC system operating, independently orienting it during the flight as it scans the terrain below and compares it with reference images, which are stored in its memory and have an exact reference to the coordinate system. Due to this, cruise missiles can generally fly without satellite navigation. At the same time, it’s impossible to affect the DSMAC system [with electronic warfare] as the missile flies by and [autonomously] scans the terrain below, and then compares this image with the reference one. As shown by the Ukrainian General Staff’s research, the latest version of the Russian Kh-101 missile had a single camera replaced by three smaller cameras with different viewing angles. Thus, the missile actually takes photos of the surface it flies over.

The missile can also be equipped with the TERCOM [trajectory correction] system. In this case, the missile measures the height of the terrain below and compares them with the reference signature, which also has a specific reference to the coordinates. This process is not optical, and therefore can be interfered with by EW, but the interference must be constant and uninterrupted.

NV: So realistically, it’s only possible to disrupt the satellite communications of Russian cruise missiles with electronic warfare?

Katkov: Yes, it’s possible to affect satellite navigation in a certain way, and the missile can get confused and go off course to avoid flying into the areas where it has a link to the DSMAC or TERCOM trajectory correction systems.

But the enemy probably understands this since a cruise missile is a rather expensive weapon and will unlikely rely strictly on satellite navigation.

NV: Recently, Moscow started using more of its ballistic missile arsenal to attack Ukraine.

Katkov: As for ballistic missiles like Iskander [in service with the Russian army since 2006], they have both inertial and satellite guidance systems, and it’s assumed they have a homing guidance system operating at the final leg of the trajectory, either via radar or optical homing heads. And therefore, taking this into account, once a ballistic missile is in flight and locks a target, it’s difficult to affect it with electronic warfare.

Read also: What air defense systems does Ukraine need to protect its skies effectively? - NV video report

Anti-ship missiles are another type of weapon that uses active homing guidance. For example, their Oniks anti-ship missile [in service with the Russian military since 2002] has an active radar homing head that emits and receives a reflected signal, guiding the missile towards what it “sees.” If I’m not mistaken, the Ukrainian Air Force command hinted that it’s possible to affect such homing mechanisms.

As for the Kh-22 anti-ship missile [in service since 1966], which Russia also uses to strikes Ukrainian cities, it’s equipped with a radar homing head, which can similarly be jammed.

In addition, there is another type of missiles, which the Russians use for attacks on Ukraine, namely anti-aircraft missiles for their S-300 and S-400 air defense systems [in service since 1978 and 2007, respectively]. These missiles use a radio command guidance system, where an air defense radar station guides the missile via radio channels and transmits commands for trajectory correction. Is it possible to affect this system by electronic warfare? It’s possible in theory, but I don’t know how it works in practice.

NV: What about the Kh-32 and Kh-555 missiles, which also feature in Russian attacks?

Katkov: The Kh-32 missile [in service with the Russian army since 2016] is an anti-ship munition, and therefore related to the Kh-22 as a direct derivative. If it was made in the Soviet Union, it would have the index, let’s say, Kh-22MU, but it was named Kh-32 in Russia for commercial purposes.

Read also: ‘Good news’ regarding air defenses, missiles, drones, and ammunition is on the way — Zelenskyy

Regarding the Kh-555 missile [in service with the Russian army since 2010], it’s related to the Kh-101 missile.

Still, there is an important aspect that rests on Ukrainian Air Force’s hints that the quality of Russian missiles is declining. This means that their systems are likely to become more vulnerable to electronic warfare. Perhaps, to put it simply, some cruise missiles are no longer equipped with complex guidance systems and, for cost-cutting reasons are stripped of, for example, the DSMAC system since it’s an expensive component. Or the quality of this system has already declined to the point that it doesn’t work properly. Thus, the missile is left to rely just on inertial and satellite guidance systems, with the satellite system being vulnerable to jamming and the inertial one having a wide error margin.

NV: How effective do you think the use of electronic warfare can be against Russian weapons?

Katkov: The issue of efficiency is quite ephemeral as we must have a specific electronic warfare tool and understand how many such tools are available. After all, if there is only, let’s say, one station with a conditional action range of 1 km, this won’t affect enemy weapons in any way.

But if we have a large number of such stations and a solid field of radio electronic jamming so that enemy weapons fly through Ukrainian territory without satellite navigation, then it would be effective.

But in this case, we should have a significant amount of electronic warfare systems. Because satellite navigation allows the cruise missile, when it leaves the electronic warfare area, to receive updated data from navigation satellites that correct the missile and thus reset the inertial error. That’s why we must have an uninterrupted field of radio electronic jamming along the entire path of the missile.

NV: After Ukraine announced the impact of electronic warfare, could Russia begin to improve its missiles and attack drones?

Katkov: I think it’s unlikely as they do it all the time anyway. Let’s recall at least the [Russian-made] Kometa-M module, designed to be resistant to electronic warfare, which is a satellite navigation antenna [which the Russians have started mounting on Orlan-type drones, cruise missiles, and guided air bombs since April 2023].

Read also: Russia’s electronic warfare causing GPS havoc over the Black Sea

But any modification or creation of new, more secure, and improved versions is, firstly, an increase in costs, and secondly, time for development, proofing, and mass production. It’s a quite long process.

And the current trend is obvious, namely the Russians prefer to simplify all weapons they can produce to increase output.

Reducing quality control is another way to boost production in Russia. That is, the products that were previously rejected are now being used [in the war against Ukraine]. And if I’m not mistaken, because of this, there have been more frequent cases when the missile engines don’t start, they simply fall off the aircraft or go off course and fall directly on Russian towns. According to my observations, such incidents are becoming more frequent.

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Read the original article on The New Voice of Ukraine