January 7, 2017:
The United States committed an embarrassing and costly (to Ukrainian troops) when indications that Russian troops could hack older UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), still sent some of these older models to the Ukraine. Initially the Ukrainian troops were grateful to receive 72 older RQ-11 Raven UAVs. Everyone in eastern Ukraine (Donbas) knew of Raven by reputation and soldiers fighting the Russian backed rebels there were eager to get this form of air support. But the Russians also knew of Raven and were happy to discover that the Americans had sent some of older analog Ravens that were easy to hack and jam. That’s what the Russians proceeded to do and the Ukrainian troops soon found the Ravens to be useless. The U.S. is now under pressure to sending digital Ravens to Ukraine. This was not done originally because many older Ravens are still analog and cheaper to send as military aid. Another reason was the belief that if the Russian hackers and EW (Electronic Warfare) experts in Donbas go to have at the latest Raven in a combat zone, they would quickly come up with a way to hack or jam it.
The more jam/hacker resistant digital Ravens have been around since 2010. It was in 2008 that the U.S. Army decided to equip Raven with a new communications system that transmitted video using a digital, rather than an analog, signal. This will enable higher resolution pictures to be transmitted, as well as allowing more Ravens (as many as 16) to operate in the same area rather than the current limit of four for analog Ravens. There was another, less publicized, reason for going digital. Some Islamic terrorists had figured out how to hack the analog signal and look at what a local Raven could see. Then the Islamic terrorists figured out how to jam the analog signal, forcing the Raven to either crash or switch to the automatic “return home” mode (built in for situations when the control link is lost). American electronic warfare experts in Iraq quickly concluded that this could lead to hackers not only jamming a Raven control signal but also taking control of one. These hacks were eventually tracked to Iranian military advisors working with Shia militia in Iran. This led to the decision to upgrade future Raven’s to digital. At that point the U.S. Army had only bought a few thousand Raven’s and it took a while to design, build, test and install the digital control system.
Until the U.S. supplies digital Ravens Ukraine is assembling similar small UAVs from components obtained from suppliers in Australia, China and the Czech Republic. These locally built UAVs cost Ukraine less than $25,000 each and are as secure as digital Raven. Moreover Ukrainian hackers and their allies overseas (in places like Israel) will have more incentive to go head-to-head with their Russian counterparts. The Ukrainians don’t have a choice but American policy makers back in the United States do and initially chose to be cautious.
The Ukrainians really need the Raven, or something like it because it is general knowledge that Raven fundamentally changed the way troops fought and made the users safer and more lethal and did the opposite for the other side. Raven was developed by the U.S. Army, it has since been adopted by the Marine Corps and a growing number of foreign countries. RQ-11 Ravens entered service in 2003 and were very popular with users from the beginning. Initially Raven was usually used by an infantry company commanders. This meant that each infantry battalion could have as many as nine such UAVs available (three per company). This was a significant reconnaissance force for infantry units that, a decade ago, were dependent on separate army aviation battalions, or the air force, for air reconnaissance. Now front line infantry commanders had their own air force and the result was revolutionary. Soon convoys were supplied with Ravens to monitor routes for ambush or bombs. Base protection troops also obtained Ravens to improve base security. Special operations troops were among the first users and often equipped small recon patrols with them.
Since 2003 some 20,000 Ravenss have been built. The individual Raven costs about $35,000 while a Raven system (four Ravens, two controllers and spare parts) goes for about $175,000. The current RQ-11B weighs 1.9 kg (4.2 pounds) and the battery gives it endurance of 60-90 minutes. Top speed is 95 kilometers an hour but normal cruising speed is less than half that. Max range (from the controller) is ten kilometers and normal operating altitude is 150 meters (500 feet). The Raven is very easy to launch. One can simply throw them or one can use a hand-held bungee cord. The battery-powered UAVs are also very quiet. This makes them practically invulnerable at night. They can fly as high as 300 meters. The operator uses a controller very similar to those used with video games, making it easy to train new operators. The small size helps. Raven is 915mm (36 inches) long and has a wingspan of 1.4 meters (43.5 fee). All this makes Raven a very difficult target to hit with small arms fire, at any range.
Noting the success of micro UAVs like the Raven Russia has sought to develop its own equivalents and details of these soon became known. That’s because these UAVs are cheap and meant to be widely available. Some get shot down or encounter technical problems. That has allowed the enemy (or potential enemy) to capture them and make their presence public.
That is what happened with the Russian Eleron-3SV UAVs in Syria. The $55,000 Eleron-3SV is a battery powered, 4.3 kg (7.49 pounds) UAV travelling at speeds of from 70 to 130 kilometers an hour. Flight endurance of up to 2 hours, and maximum altitude of 5,000 meters (16,000 feet). It is launched by throwing it and can land by flying close to the ground and shutting its engine off. One of these UAVs was shot down by Syrian rebels and found its way to Western intel analysts. Russia long supported the beleaguered Syrian government and sending some Eleron-3SV UAVs was not unusual. Likewise the Russians have had access to lost Ravens for some time.