It was 05 Jan 2018, when the first ever documented swarm drone attack in history happened on a Russian base at Khmeimim. It was 23 Sep 2023 when the latest of the drone attack happened near Moscow. This work traces the timeline between these two incidents draws some assessments.
Little Monsters make history
On 05 Jan 2018 a swarm drone attacked two targets in Western Syria; 1. Russian Air Base at Khmeimim and the Russian Naval facility at Tartus. An analysis of this incident is attempted.
A word about the assets
Khmeimim was (and is) a major Russian airbase and a military facility for the permanent Russian contingent based in Syria. It housed multiple air assets, namely, combat strike aircrafts (SU 24, SU25, SU 34,) attack helicopters (Ka 52, Mi24, Mi 28, Mi8) and transport aircrafts ( AN 32, IL 62).
The air base was well-protected by a large number of Ground Based Air Defence Weapon Systems (GBADWS). These included the shoulder-fired SAMs or MANPADS (Strela 2M and Igla), Short Range gun-missile systems (Pantsir S1 -range 18 km) and the medium range SAMs (Buk 2M range 3-42 km).
Tartus was a major Russian Naval Base housing some 11 warships. It was reported in 2016 that Russia had sent a S 300 air defence and anti-ballistic missile system to Tartus Naval Base. There were also reports of an electronic warfare (EW) capability at the base.
A word about the threat
- 13 kamikaze drones. 10 attacked Khmeimim while three attacked Tartus.
- Initially thought to be a crude DIY (Do It Yourself) type of drones, detailed examination revealed that they had circuitry for autonomous GPS control for navigation to a probable range of 50-100km.
- Each drone was designed to carry about a pound worth of plastic explosive (PETN) embedded with metal ball-bearings for enhanced fragmentation effect.
- The avionics on board had a professional touch – pressure transducers and altitude control servo actuators for seamless autonomous flight and an embedded control system for remote dropping of warhead.
- The construction of drone body was however crude composed of metal wood and plastic.
A word about action
- 13 drones struck.
- 7 destroyed by Russian SAMs.
- 6 landed at the base and caused damage (quantum unconfirmed). Three of these seven were claimed to have been decapitated by the EW unit at Tartus.
Why such an inadequate performance?
Following points are stated:-
- The attack took place in the pre-dawn hours of night 5/6 Jan. This would have made all fair-weather GBADWS ineffective.
- The construction and the size of drones would have resulted in such a small Radar Cross section (RCS) that it would have been invisible to conventional radars of the air defence weapons deployed at these two assets.
- RCS is the measure of the visibility of a target to a surveillance/tracking radar. The higher the RCS the higher is the chance that a particular radar will detect the target. Each radar has a mininum RCS detection capability.
- The Target Acquisition Radar associated with Pantsir S1 SAM (Range 32-36 Km) or the Target Tracking Radar (range 24 Km) are radars optimized to detect conventional air threat like strike aircrafts, attack helicopters (AH), ballistic missiles and the like. A typical RCS of a combat aircraft ranges from 0.5-5 M2 ( J 10-0.5m2, F18 -1m2,SU 35-3m2 Mig 21 – 3 m2, SU 30 MKI 4m2) . In comparison, the RCS of a small drone is typically in the range of 3-0.5m2. Such targets are not likely to be detected by the radars associated with conventional GBADWS of the type deployed at Khmeimim.
- What about MANPADS? Both the MANPADS, Strela 2M and Igla are heat-seeking SAMs. The heat signatures of the drones of sizes stated above is so small that these normally remain undetected by such MANPADS.
- Some detection however must have taken place, albeit at a very close range by the tracking radars because SAMs such as Pantsir S1 etc. are radar-controlled SAMS and require a positive detection and track before launch.
- Be that as it may, a large portion of the drone swarm remained undetected and hence unscathed.
- Detection of such targets require systems that can detect the kind of RCS presented. These include the Electro-optical (EO) and Infra red( IR) sensors coupled with soft kill systems which could be based on radio frequency (RF) jamming or laser kill. Modern systems are also entering into kill means using high powered microwave (HPM) or Charged Particle Beam (CPB) systems.(not explained further).
- Russian GBADWS were,though strong and mighty, but the same were optimized for countering the conventional air threat. The weapon suit lacked the typical capability to detect and kill small drones. Launching of huge SAMs against DIY types of drones was, of course, no wise kill; a typical case of killing a flea with a sledge hammer. The results should therefore not surprise anyone
EARLY DAYS OF 2022
Something similar got repeated in the early months of Ukraine war. While the Russian GBADWS suit was comprehensive to include towed and self- propelled guns (ZU 23, ZSU 23 4B1 Schilka), gun missile systems (Tunguska, Pantsir SI), Short and Medium range SAMs (Strela 10M, OSA-AK, Kvadrat, Buk 2M etc.) and the high order air defence and anti-missile systems (S 300 and variations thereof) following was evident in many of the streaming videos of the war:-
- In many of the armour thrusts attempting to make a blitzkrieg type of a headway towards the interior of Ukraine mainland,many air defence fire units were seen simply as a part of the convoys sporadically spread out across its length rather than being deployed tactically and moving up progressively through leap-frogging by fire-units.
- There were many a case of small drones striking and causing disproportionate kills on the long winding armour convoys. The drones of the likes of Bayracter TB2, US Switchblade, indigenousAerorovidka R18 etc. played havoc.This combined with the anti-tank missiles made it worse.
- So much worse that , Russian forces had to change gear by shifting to the tactics of pulverizing the targets with preponderance of artillery fire in preference to direct contact battle with armour and mechanized infantry forces.
- How come the drone power could strike big against the Russian mechanized assets?Firstly, because the Russian forces lacked the typical anti drone weaponry and secondly, their GBADWS were not seen to be in action to the extent they were capable of.
TOWARDS THE END MONTHS OF 2022
This time interval saw an increase in drone duels by Kamikaze machines on both sides. In that,the Russian forces conducted similar massive drone and missile strikes. So much that it damaged nearly 70% of the energy and power grid of Ukraine.
Getting back to drone threat to Russia. It appears that the comparatively weaker muscle of counter-drone weaponry was recognized and started to get exploited by Ukraine (+ allies) from sometime towards the far end of 2022 (Oct-Dec).
There were reports of a new outfit called the Army of Drones spearheaded under the leadership of Deputy PM of Ukraine. The idea was to amass as many small drones as possible, both indigenous and ex US and Turkey and use it widely for reconnaissance and attacks. A massive training programme has reportedly trained some 10,000 drone pilots and counting.
A series of developments from around Oct 2022 till date bring out a pattern. Some of the events are briefly captured:-
- On 29 Oct 2022, there was a massive drone attack on the Russian Black Sea Fleet operating in the waters of the Sevastopol Bay. The Russian side reported damage to a Minesweeper and a Barrage in Yuzhnaya Bay. Ukraine side claimed to have damaged upto four Russian warships which included the flagship Admiral Makarov. 
- Russia claimed that these ships were providing security to the shipping out of Ukrainian shipment of grains.That the deal was scraped is known and should surprise no one.
- In the period Nov-Dec 2022 while the Russians increased their fury of attacks by Kaliber missiles and Shahed 136 Kamikaze drones into Ukraine. On the opposite side, there were increased drone strikes on the annexed port of Crimea the same continues till date.
- Drone strikes hereafter continued to increase in intensity on both sides.It was around Feb-Mar 2023, when the Ukraine’s drones started to enter the Russian territory. The initial attacks were in the areas of Belgorod and Oryo.
- There has been no looking back on the drone strikes ever since.As per a report in May 2023 (updated 01 Sep 2023) there have been more than 190 suspected drone attacks inside Russian territory reaching all the way up to Moscow. 
Really speaking drone attacks don’t score earth-shaking/battle-winning kills but these strikes are not bereft of value; in fact quite opposite. A few thoughts:-
- For Ukraine with nearly a 1:10 handicap in air power, it gives a kind of ‘high’to the weaker opponent to strike right inside their adversary’s land.
- Though not big on warhead impact, drone strikes score media bytes which weigh heavy on words and the impact these create. Sample this – ‘Ukraine takes the war into Russia’. ‘Paying the aggressor back in its own land’.
- It actually gets a hereto ‘unconnected Russian civilian’ to think that the war has now come to his/her doorstep/grocery store/mall etc. Suffering damage to one’sown household spreads a sense of frustration as to what the nation is doing to protect ‘my little world’??
- 3D images of damaged infrastructure do the rounds on world stage.
- Strikes may be small, effects are sometime very big – drones coming in for ‘KREMLIN’, civilian airport shutting down temporarily causing huge discomfort to thousands, damaging aircrafts on military bases, innocent civilians getting hit – makes big news.
It was reported two days back in the open source that Ukraine is now following the tactics of overwhelming the finite capability of surveillance and tracking by conventional air defences using massive drone strikes. It works like this:-
- For launching of radar-controlled missiles or for firing of radar-controlled guns, a positive lock by the missile guidance (for SAMs) or the fire control radar for guns is a must.
- The above high precision radars have a finite capability of tracking a number of targets at a point in time and launch missiles at them. For instance a fire unit ofAkash Weapon System,can track upto 64 targets at any one time and can engage 12 of them simultaneously.
- Small drones operating in big numbers and gridded together as a swarm can overwhelm this capability.
Some other new tactics being followed by the Ukrainian ‘cardboard-drones’ is to go without GPS only making use of the landmarks. This way, the soft kill weapons relying on killing these machines by severing their GPS link go dumb. In fact, it was recently reported that a drone operator ( going by the alias Hacker) used a GoPro camera to locate two Russian EW systems. Later a drone strike (without GPS aid) killed them. 
It is no wonder therefore that the drones have had successes up its sleeve that includes a P Series of surveillance radar, some vessels in the Black Sea, it even showed up in their nuisance value in shutting down airports; albeit for a short duration.
TO EVERY SWORD A SHIELD
By now the reader would be able to appreciate why and how drones became a ‘choice weapon’ in Ukraine. It will however be grossly incorrect to underestimate the might of the Russian air and air defence forces. The testimony to this effect was the latest wish list of President Zelensky presented to US President on 22 Sep 2023. It included air defence weapons on the top, primarily to ward off the Russian air and missile attack.
It can however be assumed with a degree of certainty that as he war progressed the Russian war machine did realize its chinks in the armour by way of anti-drone weaponry.
Of course the above assessment can be brushed aside in one sway under the misinformation warfare by the west.Whether there is acceptance or otherwise is inconsequential; what is of consequence is the fact how the air defences of the Russian war machine have responded to the drone menace.
There is no one word answer to the above poser, but reports do indicate that Russia is fast equipping its front line troops with several anti-drone systems. Here is a brief capture of some of these efforts:-
- It was reported in Aug 2023, that Russian forces in the war zone are getting the LPD-820 and LPD-801 anti-drone guns. These guns are capable of detecting drones operating in the frequency band of 2.4GHZ to 5.8 GHZ and soft-kill them by stunning attack (RF Jam). The kill zone is in the visual domain of up to 1 Km.
- The down side of such a weapon is that by the time, the swarm has come this close, it has already dropped (or about to) its warhead. The kill is affected after the damage is done. However for Kamikaze type of drones headed for a kill through a catastrophic collision LP-820/801 will prove to be an effective weapon.
- Earlier in Apr 2023 there were reports of Russian forces deploying the PARS-S Stepashka anti drone gun. Based on the same principle of RF jamming the gun has a range of 1.5 km with 50 w power all weighing just 9.6 kg. It can stun (RF Jam) both the standard, as well as, FPV drones. FPV stands for First Person View which means a person guiding the drone all the way in view- a term normally used for racing drones. 
- It was reported in Jul 2023, that Russian fleet in the Black Sea is getting both the kinetic kill ( using high rate of fire small arms like the machine guns) as well as RF kill (soft kill) weapons to ward of the drone strikes.
What about other EW weapons?
Even by Ukraine’s admission, Russia is far ahead in EW warfare weaponry Russia holds a large spectrum of EW weapons capable of jamming ground-based radars and airborne, ship-borne and satellite based surveillance and tracking devices. Here is a brief capture of their EW arsenal that showed up on the Ukrainian battlefields:-
- IRS 257 Krashuka -4 an X band and Ku band radar jammer (frequency range -8.5 GHZ-10.6GHZ and 13.4-17.7 GHZ), used in conjunction with Krashuka 2 S band radar jammer ( 2.3-3.7 GHZ – typical drone range).
- RB341VLeer-3 and R 93 4B VHF and UHF communication jammers.
- RH 330Zh Zhitel- GPS and satellite communication jammer.
- Murmansk-BN- Long range HF communication Jammer.
- SPN 2,3,4 Airborne fire control radar jammers.
- Repellent 1 – anti drone jammer.
It is ironical that such a solid EW punch could not play for effect in the initial months of war when the Russian forces took huge casualties of tanks, APCs, aircrafts and attack helicopters. Why so? The open sources cite quite a few reasons. Some of these are presented:-
- The EW resources normally grouped at Maneuver Brigade levels were split into smaller packets and allotted to Battalion Tactical Groups operating on several axes having both the Ukrainian and Russian forces. This, in a way, restricted the use of longer range EW jammers as these would have jammed own networks of forces operating on adjacent axes. May be a centralized deployment would have permitted concentrated attack in chosen pockets? That of course is hind sight and post script wisdom. The challenges would still have been huge and nearly similar.
- The other reasons quoted are the ruggedness of ground and air communications, quantum-wise paucity of equipment to cover the entire war zone, serviceability issues, collaterals of getting own systems jammed as well etc.
The EW offensive seems to have picked up as counteroffensive has become a slow moving monolith, easier to be attacked by heavier EW systems deployed concentrated as Brigade Maneuver forces.
There are reports of the Russian EW systems getting over their initial hiccups and proving to be far more effective. Its wide range of EW resources are claiming a large number of hits on Ukrainian drones. 10,000 in one month according to one report!.Looks like the figure requires a realistic moderation
In Aug 2023, there was a report of a successful development of a counter drone EW system for protection of tanks and armoured fighting vehicles which are taking the brunt of drone strikes especially theFPV drones. The system is called Triton and operates on four frequency bands.
A recent report indicates the Russian tech giant Kaspersky having developed a ‘drone detection module called :Drone Hunter’ with a look-out range of upto 1 km. . Development of a drone carrying an Electro-magnetic pulse (EMP)generator on board which would disable an entire lot of drones in its large debilitating area is also reported.
That in someway sketches the state of the duel in drone-anti-drone arena.between the two adversaries. Here are some end thoughts:-
- The Russian air and air defence arsenal steeped deeply in the conventional mode did lack typical anti-drone muscle, especially in the initial months of war.
- This weighed heavy in terms of casualties especially to tanks and armoured fighting vehicles.
- As war progressed this chink in the armour emboldened the Ukrainians to home on to drones as ‘weapons of choice’ that scored some disproportionategains inearly months.
- The huge EW punch of Russia did not weigh in fully initially, but is latelycoming into its own as the counteroffensive snails.
- Russia is doubling up on creating the anti-drone muscle along many verticals both in the soft, as well as, hard kill domain.
- Given the nuisance which drones can continue to create at literally no cost to the Ukrainians , the strikes in the gut of the Russian territory are likely to increase in coming months- scoring many a bownie points – of which taking the war to Russia and needling an ordinary, erstwhile unconcerned, unaffected Russian not being the least of them.
- With the availability modern technology in the form of Artificial Intelligence and 3-D Printing, innovating and quickly adapting to requirements of the battle zone will dictate the winner.
Getting back to the caption “From Khmeimim to Moscow- is there some pattern? The reader has the answer now.
Khmeimim air base, “ at www.en.m.wikipedia.org. Accessed on 12 Sep 2023.
“A swarm of armed drones attacked Russian military bas in Syria,” at www-cnbc-com.cdn.ampproject.org.Accessed on 12 Sep 2023.
“Russia says Ukraine fired drones in three regions,” at www.nytimes.vom.Accessed on 21 Sep 2023.
 14 ibid
“Zelensky visits Washington to shore up support for Ukraine war.
“Ukraine admits it lags behind Russia in anti-drone electronic warfare.” At ww.newsweek.com.Accessed on 24 Sep 2023.
 22 ibid