Russia’s political-military leadership has a long standing fear of a sudden air attack on the country, which still permeates strategic thinking and planning. Drawing upon lessons based on analyses of air operations carried out by the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), combined with Russia’s proactive measures to protect its military facilities in Syria in recent years, Moscow has authorized another organic change to the structure of the Russian Armed Forces. In January of this year, following experiments run during the fall 2019 Combat Commonwealth military exercise, Russia’s Ground Forces have been augmented by the introduction of units specially formed to combat enemy unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) (Izvestia, February 9). These units, initially introduced in the Southern and Eastern military districts (MD) as a precursor to their appearance across all five MDs, are so far somewhat rudimentary in scope and capability. Their primary focus is currently on detection of and interference against UAVs. However, the defense ministry plans to eventually equip these units with more direct means to destroy enemy drones.
According to Izvestia’s sources, the Counter-UAV units are staffed exclusively by officers and contract personnel (kontraktniki), who undergo highly specialized training to facilitate their new role. Initially, these units are being tasked with the protection of military bases within their MDs; but they will undoubtedly also play a key role in any future Russian military operations. The units are equipped with small-sized radars and electronic interference systems. Indeed, it appears that the electronic warfare (EW) element plays a critical role in the capability of these units to “bring down” enemy UAVs. After the successful detection of a non-friendly drone, it is brought down using EW systems to jam its navigation system (Izvestia, February 10).
Russian military expert Oleg Zheltonozhko explained that the introduction of these new units came in response to the growing role UAVs play in modern warfare, both for reconnaissance and assault strikes. In future combat operations, Russia’s Counter-UAV units will provide cover for the Ground Forces by acting as “drone hunters.” The vice president of the Academy of Geopolitical Problems, Colonel Vladimir Anokhin, compares the introduction of these formations to the anti-tank detachments entering service during World War II (Izvestia, February 10).
While the Counter-UAV units remain at a formative stage in their development, Russian military specialists expect these “drone hunters” to continue to grow in importance and technical capability in the future. Meanwhile, the tactics being developed for them are already quite advanced. These tactics hinge on connecting detection with jamming, or small radars combined with EW assets. The enemy drone is first spotted using a small radar and, once located, an EW asset is used to create a “noise” curtain that functions across the full spectrum of radio frequencies; at the same time, the satellite channels on which the UAV depends for navigation are jammed. This radar-EW synergy acts to bring down the enemy drone. These tactics are further augmented by the use of snipers, depending on the distances involved, and air-defense systems (Rambler.ru, Securitylab.ru, February 10).
As briefly noted above, the prototype tactical role for such counter-UAV units was tested during last autumn’s Combat Commonwealth military exercise in the Southern MD. The exercise was conducted in steppe and mountainous terrain, and it included night operations. Modern reconnaissance equipment was used for target detection, including portable laser devices and thermal imaging sights (part of the soldier Ratnik combat equipment kit). The maneuvers were deemed to have been a success, with around 100 targets destroyed. Also taking part in the exercise were the Krasukha mobile EW system as well as the Pantsir-S1 surface-to-air missile and anti-aircraft artillery system. During the Combat Commonwealth drill, the Krasukha was used to jam UAV signals within a radius of 300 kilometer. The Pantsir-S1, to avoid the use of its rocket system, fired on enemy UAVs using its twin 30-millimeter gun (Izvestia, February 10).
In the future, high priority will be placed on strengthening the new Counter-UAV units by adding greater firepower to further enhance their combat capability. Chief among these plans is an ongoing project to develop a new anti-aircraft missile for the Pantsir-S1 capable of hypersonic speed of up to Mach 5 and a range increased by 40 kilometers. Judging by the open-source data available, the new missile will not be a revolutionary redesign. The mass and dimensions (both the length and the diameter of the booster stage) of the new missile may increase, but the diameter of the weapon itself is expected to decrease. It will also retain its current radio command guidance system. The main innovative feature will be deployment of four smaller missiles in place of the current single one. Russian air-defense specialists anticipate that the new missile may be introduced within the next four years (Regnum, February 6).
An additional feature of Combat Commonwealth 2019 was the extent to which air-defense specialist worked on the development of an updated system to counteract a massive air attack using cruise missiles and UAVs; such training also featured in the annual strategic exercise Tsentr 2019. The scenario used in the exercise drew on Russia’s operations in Syria. Pantsir-S1s, working in tandem with various modifications of the S-300, S-350 and the S-400 surface-to-air missile systems, used an automated command-and-control (C2) system to unite radar and air-defense systems to exchange targeting information in real time. Russian military expert Anton Lavrov highlighted the importance of the automated aspect in uniting these systems: “In Syria, Russian complexes are combined using an automated control system—this allows several complexes to receive target designation and destruction commands from a single command post. Only the closest interaction of air-defense systems allows us to build a highly effective multi-layered defense” (Izvestia, January 7).
Moscow is consistently seeking to enhance its air-defense capabilities. In late 2019, after introducing more Voronez-type and Konteyner over-the-horizon radars, a single radar field was created around the Russian Federation. Moreover, the S-500 air-defense system is expected to enter service in the near future, with reported anti–cruise missile and anti-UAV capabilities. The creation of Counter-UAV units within the Russian Ground Forces is, therefore, part of this wider process to improve the country’s air-defense capabilities and strengthen its force protection (Izvestia, January 7, February 10).