Why Russia can’t stop the onslaught of drone attacks

Russia was hit on Tuesday night and early Wednesday with what has been called the biggest drone assault on its territory since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the war in February 2022.

The strikes targeted the regions of Moscow, Bryansk, Oryol, Kaluga, Ryazan and Pskov, as well as Crimea. Even before the widespread assault, drone missions have become more frequent inside Russian territory, including on the capital city of Moscow, which has raised questions about why Russia’s military defenses have struggled with drones.

While the Kremlin frequently reports downing combat drones that it says come from Ukraine—Kyiv neither confirms, nor denies attacks on Russian territory—the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) reportedly fly into Russian airspace as if undetected by radar.

Despite the assumption that some people may have that drones are simply too small to be picked up by tracking devices, Guy McCardle— managing editor of Special Operations Forces Report (SOFREP)—told Newsweek that the technology exists to pick up even the tiniest of UAVs.

A “No Drone Zone” sign sits in central Moscow, prohibiting unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) flying over the area, on May 31, 2023. Moscow and other Russian territories have seen an increase in drone strikes, which has led some to question why Russia isn’t capable of detecting them.
Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty

“The Russians might—read ‘probably’—have small drone detection equipment in production,” McCardle said. “The problem with drones is that they can be the size of a dragonfly or have a wingspan of over 130 feet, like an RQ-4 Global Hawk.”

McCardle explained that smaller drones are typically constructed of plastic and/or composite materials. He said small aircraft are “challenging to detect because they present a minimal radar cross-section and give off no heat signature. They can fly at low altitudes—literally flying below the radar—to avoid detection. If they are picked up by conventional radar, they may be dismissed as ‘clutter,’ like birds or such.”

“As drone technology advances, so do advanced radar systems designed to detect them,” McCardle said. “It’s a real game of ‘cat and mouse.'”

Newsweek reached out to the Russian Ministry of Defense via email on Wednesday for comment.

John Spencer, retired U.S. Army major and chair of Urban Warfare Studies at the Madison Policy Forum, further explained that the challenge Russia faces in regards to spotting UAVs is that not only are counter-drone technologies diverse but also expensive.

“You have to not only have powerful radars to detect small drones (like hobby drones that can be snuck into country and built on site) and big drones (flying out of country) that can literally be put in the air in seconds and some with no GPS signal—you also have to have the ability to shoot something down electronically or directly with munitions,” Spencer told Newsweek.

“Even to protect critical infrastructure like military and civilian airfields or government buildings takes a huge investment,” Spencer added. “Clearly, Moscow was caught off guard and does not have that type of air defense or quantity across the spectrum to cover even a few sites. Even if the drones are not that damaging, they are showing everyone how weak the capital is.”

Perhaps in an effort to hit enemy drones at the source, Russia’s military attacked a theater in the Ukrainian city of Chernihiv earlier this month. Ukrainian media reported an event featuring drone manufacturers was taking place inside the theater when it was hit with missiles.

“That was a rare example of a concentration of drone producers,” Northwestern University political science professor William Reno told Newsweek, adding the theater “apparently presented a viable target once Russian intelligence picked up cellular signals of a meeting of drone producers.”

Mostly, though, Russia can seemingly do little to stem the tide of drones provided to Kyiv or are produced domestically in Ukraine.

“The first issue is practical: Drones come from diverse suppliers, many of whom are private individuals and NGOs [non-governmental organizations],” Reno said. “In practical terms, drones are scattered across multiple producers, Amazon receiving centers, NGOs and engaged citizens—all difficult targets.”

Reno added, “This is one of the features that makes drones an attractive weapon in this conflict and represents an asymmetric advantage for the Ukrainian side.”

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