Ukraine’s elite Azov brigade managed to steal a special Russian tank. This is why

One day apparently in early April, a Russian T-72 tank rolled into battle near Terny, in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk Oblast. The tank ran over some barbed wire, which fouled its tracks. Out of control, the tank collided with a BMP fighting vehicle.

A Ukrainian first-person-view (FPV) drone zoomed in. Its one-pound warhead didn’t cause much damage, but it did spook the tank’s three-person crew. The Russians bailed out – and promptly got killed by more drones.

Soon, the Ukrainian army’s elite 12th Azov Brigade was organizing a complex raid across the no-man’s-land outside Terny. The goal: to fetch the abandoned T-72.

That tank – one of more than 2,600 Russia has lost in its 26-month wider war on Ukraine – was special. Strapped to its turret was an awkward cluster of antennae and radio transmitters. It was an electronic-warfare system; one the Russians hoped would block the radio signals connecting the Ukrainians’ FPV drones to their operators sitting in a trench, bunker or building miles away.

This jammer obviously didn’t work, but the Ukrainians wanted to know why. After all, FPV drones are among the most important systems in the Ukrainian arsenal. Which makes FPV drone jammers among the most important systems in the Russian arsenal.

Where Russian attacks fail, it’s sometimes because they got overwhelmed by wave after wave of drones. Where Russian attacks succeed, it’s sometimes because they either caught a Ukrainian unit between shipments of drones – or jammed whatever drones the unit did have.

There’s a drone arms race playing out along the 600-mile front line of the war in Ukraine. The Russians try out different combinations of radio transmitters and antennae in an effort to jam the Ukrainians’ drones, while the Ukrainians try out different combinations of radio transmitters and antennae in an effort to stay one frequency ahead of the jamming.

Knowing what the Russians are working with is critical to the Ukrainians’ adaptation as their workshops churn out as many as 100,000 FPV drones a month, each at a cost of a few hundred dollars.

So when the 12th Azov Brigade team went into the no-man’s-land outside Terny, three dangerous nights in a row, they did so with a purpose.

A Ukrainian soldier prepares a FPV drone at the frontline. Soon, Ukraine will have new supplies of heavier weapons
A Ukrainian soldier prepares a FPV drone at the frontline. Soon, Ukraine will have new supplies of heavier weapons - Efrem Lukatsky/AP

The Ukrainians had to untangle the tank, replace its batteries, clear any mines lying in its path then drive it, at night across bomb-cratered terrain, while the Russians fired away with artillery. There were close calls, but the Ukrainians managed to drive the tank back to the relative safety of their own lines – and inspect the jammers.

They found the new assemblage of transmitters and antennae to be “makeshift,” according to one Azov trooper. That’s consistent with several other Ukrainian inspections of captured Russian jammers – and also consistent with the Russians’ assessment of their own counterdrone equipment.

Russian troops “do not have any massive protection against enemy drones,” one Russian blogger complained. “Everything they install has long been outdated and does not cover the enemy’s new frequencies.”

Components are often badly-made and badly-assembled in Russian jammers. “It doesn’t work at all,” one Russian blogger complained about one new jammer.

The real proof of Russia’s jamming failures is on the battlefield. “Despite claims of Russian EW [electronic-warfare] efficiency, anecdotal evidence from Ukrainian … drone pilots suggests that much of the provided EW machinery lacks adequate protection for Russian ground units,” Ukrainian analysis group Frontelligence Insight concluded.

That’s good news for the Ukrainians, considering the central role FPV drones play in Ukrainian defense plans. But the good news belies the worse news. There’s another way, besides jammers, to defeat FPVs – one the Ukrainians can’t easily overcome with technological adaptation. In a word, it’s armour.

It’s now standard practice throughout the Russian military for crews to install drone-defeating armor – steel slats or cages – on their armored vehicles. A typical FPV carries just a pound of explosives. Trigger the explosives a few inches from a vehicle’s hull, and the resulting blast might not cause much damage.

The FPVs work best as cleanup. In one recent battle outside Tonenke, in Donetsk Oblast, Ukrainian anti-tank missiles and artillery – both of which might have warheads weighing 25 pounds – caused most of the destruction. The tiny drones with their one-pound warheads “just finished the job,” further damaging immobilized and abandoned Russian vehicles, according to a Ukrainian drone-operator with the callsign “Kriegsforcher.”

The Ukrainians have come to rely on FPVs not because FPVs are super-weapons, but because of shortages of heavier munitions – mostly resulting from a group of Republican extremists in the US Congress delaying, for six months, a key vote on US aid. Yes, the drones are much better than nothing, but they’re actually a firepower downgrade compared to traditional anti-tank missiles and artillery.

And that helps to explain why, since January, Russian troops have been advancing in Ukraine. At great cost, of course, and neither very far nor very fast. But advancing, nonetheless. With persistence, courage and a little extra armor, Russian regiments sometimes drive right through waves of Ukrainian drones. Even when the Russians’ jammers aren’t working.

The lasting solution to the Ukrainians’ firepower problem isn’t to adapt their drones to counter Russian jamming, but to render that adaptation less urgent – by re-arming with much heavier weaponry.

The problem, of course, is that only Ukraine’s allies – in particular, the United States – can supply that weaponry in the necessary quantities. Fortunately for Ukraine, the US Congress has now, at last, voted for a new aid package.

Help is on the way.