The home-brewed devices are designed to cut the signal of kamikaze drones, but the same radio broadcast that shields tanks could give away their positions.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has supercharged the drone arms race, as both sides field increasingly sophisticated unmanned aerial vehicles for a variety of tasks. The latest salvo is a bolt-on jammer that creates an invisible, protective dome over tanks, jamming the signal of any kamikaze drone attempting to attack it.
One of the most dangerous types of drones on the Ukrainian battlefield is the kamikaze drone, which is designed for one-way missions, launched, and then flown over the battlefield. Sitting on the ground in the control station, the pilot must rely on the drone’s camera to locate targets. One he does, he directs the drone to attack the target, detonating an explosive, sometimes anti-tank charge.
Russian Lancet drones have become a serious danger to Ukrainian forces, seeking out tanks and artillery targets in the open. The new jammer, first reported by the Ukrainian defense blog Militarnyi, is a wireless radio device that operates in the 900-Mhz band at 50 watts broadcasting power. When a kamikaze drone streaks down from the sky to make a suicide run, the jammer cuts the signal, causing the drone operator to lose control and miss.
Lancet drones carry an explosive charge capable of penetrating 200 millimeters of armor; that’s enough to pierce the thin roof armor of many tanks, even the turret. Most Ukrainian tanks feature reactive armor tiles on the roof designed to blunt the plasma jet of a shaped charge, but Ukrainian artillery has no such protection. As a result, there are several videos on social media showing Lancets targeting Ukraine’s field artillery.
The jammer fits on the roof of a tank turret, behind the tank commander’s hatch, on the highest point of the tank. The electronics go inside a waterproof box, which is then placed in a sealed metal box for protection from enemy fire. An antenna sticks out of the box to broadcast the jamming signal.
Militarnyi says it’s not clear if the jammer relies on battery power or if it’s wired into the tank itself, but a 50-watt power draw, coupled with the fact that the box is inches from an open tank hatch, suggests a cable draws power from the tank’s electrical system. While this would require the hatch to be open while the jammer is broadcasting, the crew would mostly use it when the tank is stationary. Ukrainian tankers fight with their hatches closed under armor, and moving tanks are generally harder to hit anyway.
The 900-Mhz band the jammer broadcasts on is a common band for civilian long-range drones; it’s also the same wavelength that the Lancet drone operates on. Russian troops are also known to operate civilian drones as reconnaissance systems, buying them in large numbers on the global market.
A wireless jammer device does have some downsides. The 900-Mhz band is also a popular voice communications band, so any vehicle broadcasting must use a different band or accept being cut off from other units. This can lead to a loss of battlefield coordination between vehicles with their jammers on. The signal will also jam friendly drones, reducing a unit’s situational awareness.
Another issue is that the jammers, themselves, pumping out 50 watts of radio signal, will announce a tank’s presence to anyone capable of listening. If an enemy force is capable of detecting and geolocating the jammers, it can literally count the number of tanks and other fighting vehicles fielding them, and know their positions.
Despite these disadvantages, using a jammer is better than being blasted by a shaped charge from above. But the advent of radio-controlled drones means military commanders must now know when to mask and unmask their electromagnetic signatures. Does the enemy have their own jammers turned on? If so, they’re probably not using drones—but they could be on the move and preparing to attack.
Jammers can be a lifesaver against enemy drones, but they can also deprive friendly units of key capabilities. Drones are rapidly expanding to fill every warfare’s niche, and military forces in the air, on the ground, and at sea must have a plan to deal with them. This is particularly difficult in a hot war situation, like Ukraine, where weapons can go from concept to turners of the tide in a matter of weeks, and the other side must quickly invent countermeasures—or lose the war.
Kyle Mizokami is a writer on defense and security issues and has been at Popular Mechanics since 2015. If it involves explosions or projectiles, he's generally in favor of it. Kyle’s articles have appeared at The Daily Beast, U.S. Naval Institute News, The Diplomat, Foreign Policy, Combat Aircraft Monthly, VICE News, and others. He lives in San Francisco.
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