Air Defense: Russia Goes Passive

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May 21, 2021: Russia recently completed development and testing of a new vehicle-mounted Magister-SV passive (non-emitting) visual/radar detecting sensor system for short-range antiaircraft systems. Production begins in 2021. There was no mention of testing Magister in Syria, where Russia has found a combat situation where targets, usually Islamic terrorists UAVs, but also including Israeli airstrikes via missile, helicopter or aircraft which are often are more difficult to spot than developers expected. Magister seeks to overcome those problems by operating 24/7 in a combat zone. Magister uses a database of visual images for various known or possible targets as well as a radar detector with a similar database. Years of experience in Syria and Ukraine has allowed Russia to collect a lot of visual and electronic data on objects and radar sensors used for search or targeting. Russia may have tested Magister, or a similar system in the defense of its Hmeimim airbase in Syria but did not announce it.

Magister-SV does not appear aimed at the export market. Russia is similarly vague about its new signal jamming equipment. Russia has revealed some details of the performance of its new Silok UAV jammers in Syria, and elsewhere. Since 2017, Islamic terrorists have carried out attacks using multiple small, explosives-equipped UAVs to attack the Russian controlled Hmeimim (or “Khmeimim”) airbase in Syria. These attacks have failed because Russian air defense systems shot down or forced down over fifty of the small UAVs that approached the base in several attacks. Those forced down were because of Silok, which did not show up until early 2018. Silok was based on several earlier UAV jamming systems. Silok is apparently optimized to detect, locate and, when possible, jam control signals being received by the UAV and data being transmitted back to the operator.

Magister may be an extension of those UAV detection and defense systems, with the addition of passive (just detects) sensors detecting electronic signals emitted by aircraft, helicopters and some missiles that use low-power radar to detect specific targets. Detecting those signals or even encrypted signals meant for guided weapons or UAVs is advantageous, especially if the detection is used in conjunction with a data base of known signals.

Another Magister capability is its easy integration into larger detection networks using data from other ground, air and sea-based sensors to provide a more detailed and useful view of what is going on in a specific area. This networking and data fusion (combining data from multiple sources to created a useful view of overall activity) has been achieved by a growing number of Western developers, with Israel taking a lead because they are under constant attack or threat of attack and have plenty of opportunity to test new systems under combat conditions.

For Russia, the defense of their Syrian Hmeimim airbase motivated them to develop systems like Magister. Hmeimim was built by Russia in 2015 near the port city of Latakia, which is 85 kilometers north of the port of Tartus and 50 kilometers from the Turkish border. Russia brought in Pantsir-S1, Tor-M2U and S-400 air-defense systems to protect it from attack. Islamic terrorists based near the Turkish border obtained commercial fixed-wing UAVs and equipped them with explosives for attacks on Russian bases. One early attack was partially successful and damaged several aircraft on the ground. This prompted Russia to deploy its ELINT (electronic intelligence) collecting devices and EW jammers to defend these bases and to pinpoint the locations of UAV controllers. These locations were hit with artillery and airstrikes once the UAVs were detected and dealt with. This also encouraged the Russians to speed the development of new jammers, particularly those effective against UAVs. The Russian airbase in Syria would not be the only target Islamic terrorists go after and here was a chance to market a “combat proven” UAV jammer.

Much has been learned, or at least made public, about Russian jamming equipment in the last few years. Many of the Russian jamming systems were seen deployed in Russia (especially Moscow) for the World Cup games in early 2018. As more became known about the capabilities of Russian EW gear for jamming UAV communications, it seemed to explain how Iran had forced down an American RQ-170 UAV in 2011. Some of the earlier Russian jammers were in Iran at that time, apparently for testing and the downing of the RQ-170 made it clear to the Russians that they were moving in the right direction. The Russian involvement in the 2011 incident was kept quiet but that became less of a secret after 2014 when Russian again deployed its ELINT and jammers in Ukraine and then Syria.

The announcement that Magister existed and was about to enter production was notable because no data was revealed about weight or power requirements. Range of Magister is less of a secret because visual line-of-sight is defined by geometry. Photos of vehicle mounted Magister indicate a system that could make use of existing nine-meter (30 foot) telescoping masts found on many Western wheeled reconnaissance vehicles. These masts often contain Doppler radar, laser rangefinder, thermal imaging sensor, and video cameras. The mast-mounted sensors can see clearly out to 15 kilometers and identify targets (day or night) for artillery or air attack. The radar can spot targets out to 24 kilometers, but can only distinguish vehicle types (wheeled, tracked) beginning at about 12 kilometers. Magister claims similar capabilities, but without emitting any radar or laser signals. Development models of Magister may have already shown up in Ukraine and Syria, appearing similar to existing Russian systems.

 


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