Ukraine, Russia race to shield battle tanks from exploding drones

Ukraine, Russia race to shield battle tanks from exploding drones

MILAN — Ukrainian and Russian forces are scrambling to field countermeasures for protecting tanks against one-way attack drones, which experts say are a growing challenge even for vehicles traveling at speed.

In the large category of unmanned aerial vehicles, the class of first-person-view drones, essentially steerable miniature warheads, have emerged as a ubiquitous threat.

“One-way attack drones such as FPV or loitering munitions provide a beyond-line-of-sight capability that enable the operator to follow tanks to their concealed staging areas or departure points and strike them 24/7,” Federico Borsari, a fellow at the Washington-based Center for European Policy Analysis think tank said.

“These systems can also chase and strike moving tanks in their most vulnerable points, especially the rear exhaust of the engine,” he added.

The threat posed by these weapons has reportedly led U.S. officials to request that donated Abrams main battle tanks no longer be used on the front lines until commanders come up with new tactics.

Samuel Bendett, a research analyst at the U.S.-based Center for Naval Analyses think tank, said tanks used as “breaching vehicles in frontal attacks” have proven to be especially vulnerable.

In the last two months, a number of Russian tanks were spotted sporting unusual types of armor, including improvised metal roofs layered with metal grills. Ukrainian social media channels have nicknamed these vehicles turtle tanks, while Russian telegram accounts have referred to them as “Tsar Mangal” or tsar’s BBQs.

The purpose of these countermeasures is to set off drones’ explosive charge early in order to decrease the chance of projectiles penetrating the hull. Results have been mixed, however.

In the case of the turtle tank, “add-on log armor and metal plates, installed to create a full-fledged metal shell completely covering three sides and the top of the tank, make it impossible to rotate the turret and significantly limit the vehicle’s visibility,” Borsari said.

Russian and Ukrainian forces have also made extensive use of different electronic warfare capabilities, including mounting multi-frequency jammers on the roof of tanks to disrupt or jam the radio-frequencies of adversary drones.

While many analysts consider electronic warfare to be the most promising defense against small drone variants, Borsari said that both sides are also trialing novel workarounds, creating a “constant cat and mouse game.”

Footage has emerged on Telegram showing FPV drones damaging and immobilizing combat vehicles in Ukraine, but experts highlight that destroying a tank requires the deployment of several of these weapons by experienced pilots.

“At this point, successful FPV attacks against tanks are contingent on pilot experience – it takes a lot to destroy a tank, and only the best and most experienced ones can maneuver their drone at exactly the right spot to strike,” Bendett said.

Elisabeth Gosselin-Malo is a Europe correspondent for Defense News. She covers a wide range of topics related to military procurement and international security, and specializes in reporting on the aviation sector. She is based in Milan, Italy.

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