Fortress Crimea: Under the Russian radar dome

Russia continues to improve military radar coverage of Crimea and the Black Sea

@DFRLab
@DFRLab
Oct 18 · 7 min read
Open-source imagery of radar site near Mayak, uploaded July 3, 2019. NOTE: Picture not up to date. (Source: VK)

Since annexing Crimea in 2014, Russia has continued its steady militarization of the peninsula by expanding its preexisting installations.

On January 9, 2019, the DFRLab wrote about Russia placing five S-400 air defense systems in Crimea, covering large parts of the Black Sea. Six additional radar installations are located throughout the peninsula, visible through open-source imagery.

Russian investments in its military infrastructure in Crimea over the past five years have included upgraded military airfields, modern electronic warfare systems, newer fighter jets, an updated Black Sea Fleet, and dramatically expanded radar coverage of the Black Sea. The increased presence of this materiel greatly improves Russia’s radar coverage of the Black Sea, improving its ability to respond to possible military challenges of its hold on the peninsula.

Overlook of radar assets on Crimea not intrinsically part of S-400 units. Red lines mark S-400 ranges for 40N6 and 48N6 missiles, respectively. Note that the ranges visualized are the maximum estimated or stated ranges of these systems and may be significantly lower in practice. (Source: @Michael1Sheldon/DFRLab via Google Earth)

Like the S-400 air defense systems covered previously, most of these radar assets fall under the 3rd Radio Technical Regiment of the 4th Air and Air Defense Forces Army’s 31st Division, which covers the Azov and Black Sea region more broadly. Most Russian non-naval air and air-defense assets on the peninsula fall under the 31st Division.

Most of these sites have radars in different frequency ranges, allowing for a mixture of early detection and precision tracking of airborne threats. Lower frequency (greater wavelength) radars have greater range and generally perform better against stealth technologies but at the expense of accuracy. Conversely, higher frequency radars more accurately track targets, albeit in a more confined range. These enhanced detection and tracking capabilities become useful when integrated with existing air and air defense assets.

It is worth noting that this article does not cover the seemingly halted construction of a Voronezh early warning radar, which would replace the now-defunct Soviet-era Dnepr radar station at Sevastopol. If completed, the Voronezh would provide improved ability to detect and track ballistic missile launches southwest of the peninsula.

Uyutne

The radar site near Uyutne, largely unchanged since receiving a fresh batch of new and old radars in 2016, underwent an interesting change during the spring and summer of 2019 as a new radome appeared on the northern part of the compound, in place of a 36D6 search and acquisition radar that had previously occupied the same position. Radomes are protective sphere or semisphere-like structures that protect radars from the elements and visual identification and are constructed specially to avoid interfering with a radar’s waves. The site was located just west of the large town of Yevpatoriya on the northwestern part of the peninsula.

Satellite imagery showing the radar site near Uyutne. Note that radome construction is still in its early stages in this imagery. (Source: Michael1Sheldon/DFRLab via Yandex Maps)

The radome, with an outer diameter of approximately 35 meters, should be able to accommodate most mobile radars in the Russian arsenal. This diameter is more than twice that of the Kasta 2–2 radome recently constructed at the Kerch facility. While it is unknown what this particular radome accommodates, its wide diameter suggests that it may be intended for larger air search radars like the RLM-M of the Nebo-M complex, with a span of approximately 20 meters.

Simultaneous to the beginning of the construction of the radome, an empty lot in the east of the compound filled up with large vehicles, the purpose of which was not obvious though they appeared similar in size and shape to radar-support vehicles.

Three radars occupied this site in addition to the unknown one presumably already occupying the radome: an 96L6 air-search radar operating in the centimetric range at the southern portion of the site; a decimetric range Kasta 2–2 directly to the east of the radome; and one of two P-14 radars on the peninsula, which work in the metric range.

Mayak

The site near Mayak, located near Olenevka on Cape Tarkhankut, is the northwestern-most radar point of the Russian Federation in the Black Sea. The radar site consists of three out of four components to the Nebo-M complex, Russia’s most modern mobile early warning radar systems.

Overview of radar assets at the site near Mayak. (Source: Michael1Sheldon/DFRLab via Yandex Maps)

The complex works similarly to other sites on the peninsula in combining radars across multiple bands to leverage the capabilities of each frequency range. In addition, a Kasta 2–2 air-search radar has been present at this site since it was taken over by Russian forces, providing additional VHF/UHF coverage of the northwestern part of the peninsula.

Tweet showing 96L6 at the radar site near Mayak. (Source: @Michael1Sheldon/archive)

In mid-2019, the DFRLab identified a 96L6 C-band radar in open-source imagery from the ground, visible in a YouTube video posted in March. In more recent footage, the 96L6 was missing from this location. It appeared that this radar was present at the site near Mayak only up until mid-May 2019. Maxar satellite imagery posted to Twitter showed that the 96L6 was gone by May 23.

Tweet containing Maxar satellite imagery showing the presence and disappearance of the 96L6 near Mayak. (Source: @strannik_1981/archive)

While one component from the Nebo-M complex was missing, which is not particularly unusual, the 96L6 provided radar coverage on a band similar to that of the missing RLM-S in the brief time it was there.

September 15 imagery from radar site near Mayak. (Source: Michael1Sheldon/DFRLab via vk.com)

Later imagery from the ground corroborated that the 96L6 was only temporarily deployed to the site near Mayak but revealed the presence of an additional Kasta 2–2. This additional Kasta 2–2 appears to be more permanently based, as imagery as recent as October 10 still shows the extra radar present on the site.

Kerch

The radar site at Kerch, sharing a location with an undeclared S-400 battery, also underwent some recent changes. In addition to open-source satellite imagery showing the newly constructed Kasta 2–2 radome in place, updates were also visible to other areas of the site. Most notably, the previous 55Zh6 TALL RACK radar was no longer active in the Yandex maps imagery and was in the process of being replaced with an upgraded 55Zh6U.

Overview of radar assets and recent changes to the air defense site near Kerch. (Source: @Michael1Sheldon/DFRLab via Yandex Maps)

In addition to the switching out of the main VHF radar, the site also seemed to have lost its short-range air defense (SHORAD) capabilities with the removal of a Pantsir-S1 air defense system for unknown reasons.

Other parts of the Kerch site remained constant since the DFRLab last reported on it. Despite receiving limited news coverage in Russian media, the Kerch site remains one of the most extensive defensive installations on the peninsula.

Sevastopol

The site at Sevastopol, located just south of an S-400 site, contains radars in centimetric, decimetric, and metric ranges, which enable better capabilities against stealth technology.

Overview of radar assets and recent changes to radar site near Sevastopol. (Source: Michael1Sheldon/DFRLab via Yandex Maps)

The 55Zh6 in this imagery is folded down, most likely in preparation for the radar to be switched out for a newer 55Zh6U. This would, hypothetically, replace all 55Zh6 radars on the peninsula with upgraded versions, as this is the final 55Zh6 in the region.

Gvardeyskoye

The site at Gvardeyskoye, an airbase located inland on the peninsula, consists of a selection of radars similar to the Nebo-M. These include the 64L6M centimetric-range radar and the 59N6 decimetric-range radar.

Overview of radar assets at Gvardeyskoye airbase. (Source: @Michael1Sheldon/DFRLab via Google Earth)

In addition to the decimetric and centimetric radar coverage, the site at Gvardeyskoye features two 55Zh6U Nebo-U VHF radars.

Feodosia

The site at Feodosia is relatively modest. Facing south toward the center of the Black Sea, it consists of a 55Zh6U and a Kasta 2–2. It is not clear what radars are inside the radomes at this site, but they are likely not functional, as on-the-ground imagery shows them in a rather dilapidated condition.

Overview of radar assets at site near Feodosia. (Source: @Michael1Sheldon/DFRLab via Google Earth)

Belbek

Finally, the site at Belbek, near Sevastopol, is similarly modest. The two main radars of interest are the 96L6 and the 55Zh6U. While this particular location has remained unchanged for some time, Belbek airfield as a whole has undergone a massive overhaul in the past couple of years. Most notably, the landing strip has been extended to allow the airfield to take on heavy transport aircraft.

Overview of the radar assets at the site near Belbek airbase. (Source: @Michael1Sheldon/DFRLab via Google Earth)

All of these radar units are, of course, in addition to those intrinsically part of S-400 air defense units, which expand radar coverage north and east in the centimetric range.


Michael Sheldon is a Research Assistant with the Digital Forensic Research Lab.

Follow along for more in-depth analysis from our #DigitalSherlocks.

DFRLab

@AtlanticCouncil’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. Catalyzing a global network of digital forensic researchers, following conflicts in real time.

@DFRLab

Written by

@DFRLab

@AtlanticCouncil's Digital Forensic Research Lab. Catalyzing a global network of digital forensic researchers, following conflicts in real time.

DFRLab

DFRLab

@AtlanticCouncil’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. Catalyzing a global network of digital forensic researchers, following conflicts in real time.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade