Russia says it destroyed Ukrainian drones going to Moscow 5:02
(CNN) -- In early November, a drone video surfaced online that appeared to show a targeted attack blowing up three antennas on the roof of an apartment block. The Ukrainian commander of the drone who posted it claimed to have destroyed a Russian Pole-21 electronic warfare system on the eastern front, near Donetsk.
Ukraine is already racing to catch up with Russia when it comes to electronic warfare.
This attack also shows how Kyiv is rushing to destroy Moscow's technology on the battlefield, a sign of how important it may be for the future of the war.
Electronic warfare, or EW, involves weapons or tactics that use the electromagnetic spectrum. Both armies are employing it in this conflict, predominantly through electronic jammers that disable GPS-guided targeting systems, causing the rockets to miss their targets.
After nearly six months of Ukraine's slow and grueling counteroffensive, it is clear that Russia has not only built physical defenses but also formidable electronic defenses, and Ukrainian soldiers on the front lines are having to adapt quickly.
Pavlo Petrychenko, the drone commander of Ukraine's 59th Motorized Brigade, which carried out the attack in early November, says successfully destroying these systems is critical if Ukraine wants to liberate more territory. The video he posted on social media is one of a growing number of Ukrainian military and media reports of successful attacks on Pole-21 systems alone since the summer.
"At the beginning of the conflict, they used electronic warfare to interfere with our communications, our walkie-talkies, radio communications, telephones, drones," he told CNN in a video call from near Avdiivka on the Eastern Front, the current site of some of the fiercest fighting of the war.
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Pavlo Petrychenko, drone commander of Ukraine's 59th Motorized Brigade, says destroying Russia's electronic warfare systems is crucial to Ukraine's war effort. (Credit: Pavlo Petrychenko)
"But when we started getting foreign equipment, they started using these systems to suppress our weapons.
"Since (the two high-mobility artillery rocket systems) HIMARS (provided by the U.S.) and Excalibur 155 (an extended-range artillery projectile) are guided by satellites, (Russia) actively uses electronic warfare as a defense element against us," Petrichenko said.
A crack in the armor provided by NATO to Ukraine
And that's the problem for Ukraine. Russian blockaders have turned the technological advantage of the arsenal of "smart" (guided) weapons provided by the West in Ukraine into a vulnerability.
Precision-guided missiles and multiple launch guided rocket systems, such as HIMARS, are by nature more vulnerable to electronic warfare than unguided weapons because they rely on GPS to reach their targets. Unguided weapons, common in Soviet-era arsenals in both Russia and Ukraine, before 2022, do not.
The Pole-21 system, designed to jam GPS signals to protect Russian assets from incoming drones or missiles, is just one feature of Moscow's growing electronic arsenal.
Jamming, as well as GPS "spoofing" — a technique that effectively tricks an enemy drone or missile into thinking it's somewhere else — and also disrupts radar, radio and even cellular communications, are part of the Kremlin's playbook.
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Russia has turned the technological advantage of some of the weapons provided by the West to Ukraine into a vulnerability. (Credit: Russian Ministry of Defense)
In September, state news agency TASS reported that Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin told a government meeting that production of key types of military equipment, including electronic warfare, had doubled in the first eight months of the year.
Ukrainian experts and officials also say that Russia has now fully integrated electronic warfare with its troops.
Ukraine's commander-in-chief, Valery Zaluzhny, wrote in a recent essay that Russia is now mass-producing what he calls "trench electronic warfare."
"The tactical level of Russian troops is saturated with (this equipment)" and, despite the equipment losses, Moscow still maintains "significant superiority in electronic warfare," Zaluzhny added.
Zaluzhny also highlighted the U.S.-made Excalibur projectiles, noting that "their capability has decreased significantly, as the guidance system (which uses GPS) is very sensitive to the influence of enemy electronic warfare."
Pentagon spokesman Maj. Charlie Dietz said that "while the impact of Russian interference has been observed" on certain U.S.-provided systems, including HIMARS rocket launchers, "it has not rendered these systems ineffective."
Dietz said the department has taken steps to reduce those vulnerabilities, making "substantial efforts to redesign and update these systems." He added that the upgrades "are being rolled out as quickly as possible to counteract the effects of EW interference."
From drone army to electronic army
Ukraine said it has been able to increase domestic drone production 100-fold this year, something that transformed the battlefield.
The man behind this, Ukraine's minister of digital transformation, Mykhailo Fedorov, now hopes to repeat that success with electronic warfare, especially since drones are very often victims of electronic warfare.
"Not only are we increasing the production of UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), but we are also increasing the production of EW and in general we are shifting the focus towards the use of electronic warfare," Fedorov said in an interview with CNN from Kyiv. "The whole doctrine on the use of this technology is changing on our side."
This involves not only integrating electronic warfare as a layer of protection on the battlefield, but doing so intelligently.
Fedorov warns against "oversaturation" of the battlefield, but instead supports the design of EW systems that can be controlled remotely, so that they target only the enemy team.
Otherwise, there is a real risk that electronic warfare systems could work against them and shoot down their own drones, Fedorov added.
A November 2022 report by the British think tank Royal United Services Institute suggested that what it calls "electronic fratricide" (accidentally targeting one's own forces) was such a big problem on the Russian side in the early days of the war that they had to scale back electronic warfare efforts to avoid sabotaging their own communications on the battlefield.
However, the most important task for now, Fedorov says, is for Ukraine to acquire the technology needed to program its drones to attack enemy electronic warfare equipment on a large scale.
That would be a game-changer for drone operators like Petrychenko, who admits they're in a cat-and-mouse game, hunting down Russian equipment.
Both militaries are using electronic warfare in this conflict. (Credit: Russian Ministry of Defense)
Right now, the best hope they have is that videos, such as the one of their drone strike in early November, will go viral, Petrychenko said. With so many Ukrainian troops on social media, any viral footage like this would act as a manual, helping them identify Russian antennas on the battlefield.
It's clear that this is changing the game beyond Ukraine.
"I think what we're seeing in Ukraine is very much a glimpse of what modern warfare looks like today," said Kari Bingen, director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank and a former principal deputy assistant secretary of defense at the Pentagon. It's a future in which "electronic warfare capabilities and tactics are integrated into the operations of conventional forces," he added.
Dietz, the Pentagon spokesman, said the U.S. is "actively evaluating and adapting its strategies" in electronic warfare, and sees it as a "critical aspect of contemporary and future military engagements."
Fedorov said Ukraine is investing directly in electronic warfare, but is also following in the footsteps of its drone program by incentivizing domestic production.
And he is open about the fact that Ukraine needs the help of its Western allies, both in terms of equipment and experience.
"The West has all the technology we need. The question is possibly how to use it, and it's an important question. We need to think about the next technological stage of warfare."
CNN's Katharina Krebs and Haley Britzky contributed reporting.
Russia's war in Ukraine