A Blog by Jonathan Low


Feb 4, 2023

How Ukraine Uses Camoflage Nets To Confuse and Stop Russian Drones

Standard military doctrine prior to Ukraine was to move artillery quickly after firing - "shoot and scoot" as it's called - in order to avoid accurate radar-driven counter battery fire. 

But Russia's use of surveillance drones has made that impractical because artillery moving on roads is easily detectable, whereas good camoflage - especially that augmented by heavier netting - makes it harder for drone munitions to hit their targets. Yet another example of the Ukrainian experience changing the way wars are being fought. JL

Sebastien Robin reports in Forbes:

Ukrainian troops are ensconcing even mobile artillery under camouflage netting or wire cages that snare plunging drones short of their target. Formerly, Ukrainian forces prioritized immediately moving artillery after firing - “shooting and scooting” - to avoid Russian counter-battery artillery. But now the drone threat is greater than that posed by counter-battery fires. Russian counter-battery fire in the first six months of fighting was especially slow to react. So Russia increasingly relied on drones to locate Ukrainian artillery.  This means shooting-and-scooting may backfire, as moving vehicles are more (easily) detected by aerial surveillance. (As a result) camoflage is taking precedence.
Videos released by Russia’s military show that its domestically-built Lancet-3 kamikaze drones have damaged or destroyed a significant number of Western-supplied artillery systems including at least two dozen towed M777 howitzers and self-propelled armored artillery vehicles, numerous radars and other air defense system components, a handful of tanks and even a gunboat.

In a conflict in which Russia’s military has performed well below expectations, the Lancet-3M appear to be one of its more successful innovations.

However, a new wave of videos shared by Ukrainian troops shows they are modifying their tactics too in response: ensconcing even mobile artillery under camouflage netting or even wire cages that literally snare plunging drones short of their target. It seems to be working, judging by videos and images shared by Ukrainian troops. For example, the image shows a Polish-supplied Krab self-propelled howitzer which has been spared a Lancet-3’s shaped charged warhead thanks to a wire cage enclosure.

However, more vulnerable towed howitzers crews may stand even more to benefit.

CJ, an active-duty U.S. Army field artillery officer who posts under the Twitter handle CasualArtyFan writes in a thread:


“...it was soon discovered seemingly by accident that Lancets had difficulty penetrating camo nets used by the Ukrainian Army tanks to shoot indirect fire... the Ukrainian Army quickly passed these lessons learned to their M777 crews which were more vulnerable. Within a week, metal fences/screens were being incorporated into camouflaging nets to provide protection against Lancets. While this meant M777s would be less mobile, it meant they would be protected from their current threat.”


Formerly, Ukrainian forces prioritized immediately moving their artillery after firing—“shooting and scooting”—so as to avoid Russian counter-battery artillery barrages. Setting up elaborate camouflage nets or wire enclosures at active firing positions doesn’t go naturally with that imperative.


But now the drone threat appears to be viewed as greater than that posed by hostile counter-battery fires. And with drones seemingly responsible for more artillery losses, the benefits of camouflage from above—and physical barriers to prevent Lancet loitering munitions from hitting their targets—may be taking precedence.

Drones versus artillery

Indirect-fire artillery—munitions lobbed by howitzers, heavy mortars, and multiple rocket launchers—accounts for the majority of casualties in ground warfare between conventional armies. That makes directly targeting an enemy’s artillery is highly desirable. But because it’s usually firing from concealed positions many miles behind the frontline, it’s usually very difficult to do so accurately.

In the second half of the 20th century, one of the most efficient methods that emerged for doing so was using counter-battery radars that could detect incoming artillery shells and calculate their point of origin, allowing accurate artillery counterstrikes to be fired within a matter of minutes.

Thus, designers of modern artillery systems have prioritized decreasing the shoot-and-scoot time on advanced self-propelled howitzers like the German PzH-2000 or French CAESAR trucks to as few minutes as possible to dodge the expected lethal counter-battery barrage.

But according to a report by British think tank RUSI, Russian counter-battery fire in the first six months of fighting was especially slow to react—with requested fire missions typically arriving 30 minutes later.

That made Ukrainian shoot-and-scoot methods fairly effective at evading return fire, even when using towed howitzers which, though much cheaper, take longer to setup to fire and then evacuate using a towing vehicle. For an M777s, an experienced crew 8 requires 6 minutes to setup for firing, and another 6 to pack up and leave.

Indeed, in terms of sheer volume, the over 152 towed M777 towed 155-millimeter howitzers supplied by the U.S., Australia and Canada were one of the most important Western-supplied weapons for Ukraine in the spring and summer of 2022.

Later in the fall, two other factors further reduced Russia’s counter-battery capability. The first was exhaustion of ammunition due to excessive expenditures during the summer and a spate of Ukrainian rocket attacks that destroyed Russian ammunition dumps.

A second factor was introduction of U.S.-supplied AGM-88 HARM missiles, which are designed to home in on radar emissions—including air defense radars, but counter-battery radars also make fine targets. Ukraine’s Air Force found a way to jury-rig these standoff-range weapons for firing from their Soviet MiG-29 jet fighters and set to work.

The HARM missiles knocked out some Russian radars and likely compelled the remainder to operate more conservatively to avoid presenting too obvious a target. This likely came at the expense of providing 24/7 counter-battery coverage.

Instead, Russia increasingly relied on surveillance drones, most notably the Orlan-10, to locate Ukrainian artillery. These could call down artillery fire missions rapidly—within 3-5 minutes—or they could cue in kamikaze attacks by Kub or Lancet drones.

To this method of attack, the shooting-and-scooting may actually backfire, as moving vehicles are more likely to be detected by aerial surveillance.

CJ remarks: “The more M777s displaced to new positions, the easier they were to find. Russian UAVs [drones] constantly scan roads behind Urkainian Army lines. This is the paradox of survivability moves.”

While Lancets seem to have a mixed record attempting to engage moving targets, a moving artillery system can still be followed by a longer-endurance drone back to its bivouac and targeted there.

Admittedly, both sides’ surveillance drones have also had many successes detecting camouflaged fighting positions in this war. But here’s where the camouflage netting, or less discrete enclosures, are paying off.

A Lancet-3 weighs only 26 pounds, and its shaped charge warhead accounts for 6.6-11 pounds typically. Netting or enclosures might prevent the triggering of the warhead’s contact fuse, or at least cause the warhead to discharge at an ineffective angle or against a non-vulnerable part of the system. That means a near miss sometimes leaves even a towed howitzer essentially functional, as was evident in one of Russia’s first recorded loitering munitions attacks on Ukrainian M777s using the less-successful Kub (or KYB) drone.

The effectiveness of netting or other enclosures against heavier loitering munitions with larger warheads, like the Israeli IAI Harops, which has a 51-pound warhead and was used extensively against Syria and Armenia’s armed forces, is less certain. Due to the larger payload alone, a near miss may still succeed in disabling its target. However, Russia doesn’t appear to be fielding a standardized loitering munition in that weight class—yet.

Of course, the risks attendant to occupying a static firing position haven’t gone away entirely. That means as the war in Ukraine approaches it second year, artillery crews face complex choices balancing camouflage from overhead surveillance, physical barriers protecting against loitering munitions, and ‘scooting’ to avoid counter-battery fires or pre-planned strikes.


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