Every conflict brings lessons learned. The recent flare-up in tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh is no exception.
It is not the first time the two nations in the Caucuses have locked horns. Since 1989 they have fought almost continually over the predominantly Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, situated inside Azerbaijan. The latest spat kicked off in late September. As of late October an uneasy and lax ceasefire replete with continuing skirmishes had settled over the theatre.
From an electronic warfare perspective, one interesting observation of the conflict was the reported vulnerability of Azeri Baykar Aerospace Industries Bayraktar TB-2 Uninhabited Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to Russian electronic warfare systems. The Russian Army maintains a base in western Armenia at Gyumri. The army reportedly fielded an unspecified number of electronic jamming platforms to help protect the base.
Russian EW Systems
No specific details were given on the identity of these systems. It is possible that they included KRET IL269 Krasukha-2 jammers routinely deployed with the EW battalions equipping Russia’s military districts at the tactical/operational levels. If this is indeed the case, these systems could be from the Southern Military District’s 504th Independent EW Battalion.
Open literature states that the IL269 covers a waveband of at least one gigahertz/GHz to two gigahertz. This could render the system capable of jamming some standard Ground Control Station (GCS)-to-UAV Radio Frequency (RF) links. As well as jamming the UAV-GCS RF links, this may allow the IL269 to block GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System) transmissions between 1.1GHz to 1.6GHz. UAVs routinely rely on GNSS signals for navigation.
On 21st October, the Russian military claimed it had shot down nine Bayraktar TB-2 UAVs flying in the vicinity of Gyumri. The reports stated that the IL269’s sister system, KRET’s IRL257 Krasukha-4, was the platform used for the attacks. As the latter is thought to cover frequencies of 8.5GHz to 18GHz, this seems unlikely. It is uncertain that the IRL257 can engage frequencies as low as those routinely used by UAV-GCS RF links typically frequencies of 2.4GHz and 5.8GHz, or GNSS signals. Without independent verification it is all but impossible to say with any certainty which EW system the Russian Army deployed to protect the base.
If the Russian Army has indeed been successful in electronically attacking the Bayraktar TB-2 UAVs this raises questions regarding the transmission and communications security protocols used by these aircraft and their ground control stations.
Two scenarios present themselves: Firstly, the RF link between the aircraft and the GCS is unencrypted and does not use additional transmission security like frequency-hopping waveforms. Secondly, the UAV-GCS RF link may use transmission security protocols which the Russian Army successfully overcome.
The problem for Azerbaijan and by default the UAV’s Turkish manufacturer is that either of these scenarios presents a potentially serious shortcoming to the UAV’s design. The loss of the aircraft also raises questions about the integrity of the UAV’s GNSS link. Photographs of wrecked Bayraktar TB-2 UAVs do not seem to indicate that the aircraft was destroyed kinetically. Instead it appears that the aircraft, like David Bowie, simply ‘fell to Earth’. This is another potentially serious shortcoming. Usually UAVs are designed to land if one or more of their RF links are broken. Alternatively, they may try to land safely, although this is more difficult for a UAV like the Bayraktar TB-2 which needs a runway.
Worryingly, the manner of the aircraft’s loss may indicate that Russian electronic warfare experts were able to take control of the UAV and then crash it. The ability to hack into the aircraft and precipitate such a course of action is another worry. Much detail remains unknown concerning the loss of these aircraft. If the UAVs were the victim of Russian jamming it raises questions about the capabilities of the latter and the vulnerabilities of the former.