Asymmetric Dialogue

Russia’s latest mini-drones are communications killers

Summary The Russian military continues to develop innovative electronic warfare technologies that could secure a crucial advantage in a future conflict.
The Russian military continues to develop innovative electronic warfare technologies that could secure a crucial advantage in a future conflict. 


The latest addition to the Russian arsenal is the upgraded Leer-3 mini-drone system. According to Samuel Bendett, a research analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses, the Russian drones (usually Orlan-10s) operate in teams of three, with a truck acting as the command-and-control post. Working in conjunction with a ground station, the drones overfly the battlefield and jam enemy communications as far as 60 miles. Given that the Orlan-10 drones have a range of 75 miles, the Russian military could jam targets up to 135 miles away from the launching point.
“Russia has been using a UAV-mounted cellphone jammer for a number of years now. When these UAVs fly in teams, one acts as a signal-and-comms relay while another acts as a jammer. The Leer-3 systems have been around for about two years at this point,” said Bendett.
In practice, these mini-drones have been deadly. In Syria, for example,the Russian military has used the Leer-3 system to disseminate fake armistice messages to rebel forces. The jamming capabilities of the three UAVs ensured that the rebels couldn’t use their cellphones to verify the truce messages. They were, thus, forced to either fight on or take the bait. Those who were convinced by the messages soon regretted it.
Furthermore, according to the U.S. Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO), the Leer-3 system can be transformed into a “virtual cellular station by sending messages and totally controlling a subscriber’s devices once it replaces a base station. If it manages to take the place of a cellular communications tower, it can also send audio messages and small video clips to subscribers.”
But Syria hasn’t been the only battlefield where the Russian mini-drones have been operating. In Ukraine, government forces have reported electronic warfare attacks and then noticed Orlan-10s buzzing above them.
“It thus appears to have some psychological warfare mission implications, if it can do all of these tasks. The Leer-3 can reportedly block enemy mobile telephones while simultaneously not impeding the operation of friendly mobiles phones. The systems can collect telephone numbers and call these numbers while blocking other people’s signals. It may also be able to remotely connect user devices as well,” added the FMSO report.
But how does one counter the Russian threat? By deploying his own drone fleet, some argue.
Bob Work, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and former Undersecretary of Defence, asserts, “There’s no way that a human is going to be able to keep up with these new generations of cognitive electronic warfare systems that are constantly scanning the electromagnetic spectrum and jamming software where it can. Humans just won’t be able to keep up with that. The expectation is once again, for electronic warfare, machines will fight against their machines.”
Whoever manages to secure a technological advantage over his potential foe, will be a step closer to victory in a future conflict.