Russian forces in southern Ukraine installed a powerful radio-jammer designed to interfere with the signals that help to direct GPS-guided munitions and drones.
Last week, Ukrainian forces blew up the Pole-21 GPS-jammer … with an apparent GPS-guided bomb.
The irony wasn’t lost on the independent Conflict Intelligence Team. “It can be assumed that the [electronic-warfare system] was not operational at the moment of the strike,” CIT observed.
The Pole-21 system is a combination of antennae and powerful radio-signal generators that can interfere with the radio links between GPS satellites and the drones, cruise missile and precision-guided bombs—such as the American Joint Direct Attack Munition—that rely on GPS for guidance. A Pole-21 is effective out to 15 miles or so.
The Pole-21 is “designed to protect strategic assets and infrastructure,” the U.S. Army explained. It’s not clear exactly which assets the Pole-21 in southern Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia Oblast was protecting, but it’s worth noting that Zaporizhzhia is the locus of Ukraine’s four-month-old counteroffensive—and an obvious place for the Kremlin to concentrate its best jammers.
The Russian armed forces long have prioritized electronic-warfare—in particular, radio-jamming—as a means of blunting NATO countries’ advantage in drones and precision munitions.
“Moscow is stepping up its efforts to renew and modernize the E.W. inventory,” the Estonian defense ministry explained in a 2017 report. “The effect of those changes is evident in Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, where E.W. forms an organic part of Russia’s kinetic and non-kinetic operations.”
As the Ukrainians have adopted more unmanned aerial vehicles and Western-style munitions, the Russians have doubled down on their E.W. infrastructure in occupied Ukraine. The Institute for the Study of War in Washington, D.C. observed that, when the Russians launched a counterattack around Avdiivka in eastern Ukraine on Oct. 10, the operation began with extensive jamming.
This and other adaptations “suggest that Russian forces are applying lessons learned from operations in southern Ukraine to other sectors of the front,” ISW noted.
The more the Ukrainians rely on GPS, the more the Russians try to jam GPS—and the more the Ukrainians target the jammers. In the 21 months since Russia widened its war on Ukraine, Kyiv’s forces have destroyed at least four dozen Russian jamming systems, each of which might cost tens of millions of dollars.
The Ukrainian operation to eliminate the Pole-21 apparently began with drone reconnaissance by the Ukrainian intelligence service’s White Wolf group. After a drone identified the Pole-21’s unique antennae arrangement, a Ukrainian air force fighter—a Sukhoi Su-27 or Mikoyan MiG-29—reportedly lobbed a JDAM at the system.
Note that both of the Ukrainian systems involved in the strikes—the drone and the bomb—rely on GPS. That they could complete their raid and destroy the Pole-21 strongly implies the Pole-21 wasn’t working at the time of the attack.
This isn’t unusual. The main problem with the Pole-21 is that it jams everything: enemy and friendly signals alike. “High risk of co-channel interference for all [radio-frequency] spectrum clients/users within the operational footprint of this jammer,” the U.S. Army warned.
So a Pole-21 crew has to be very judicious with how it uses its jammer—switching it on only when there are no Russian forces in the vicinity that need satellite guidance. “Russian E.W. often suppresses not only the enemy’s equipment, but also its own, leading these systems to sometimes being switched off,” CIT explained.
It seems the Ukrainians either got lucky, or timed their reconnaissance and bombing run to coincide with a period of time when the Pole-21 was off, and incapable of defending itself from the very GPS-guided munitions it’s designed to thwart.