#MinskMonitor: The Russian Drone Wagons of the Donbas

A primer on the presence of Russian vehicle-based UAV systems in the Donbas

(Map source: Openstreetmaps)

Russian unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have made up an integral, yet elusive, element in the Russian-led separatist fighting forces in the Donbas. This trend can be seen in a microcosm where locals intermittently spot mobile drone stations roaming the streets of non-government-controlled eastern Ukraine, disguised as local vehicles.

@DFRLab identified two variations of Russian command and control truck-based drone systems in the Donbas: the “Leer-3” and “Granat-4”. While visually similar, these two systems perform different tasks. The Leer-3 is an electronic warfare (EW) station directed at cellular technology, whereas the Navodchik-4 is a reconnaissance UAV primarily designed to direct artillery fire. Supposedly, the Granat-4 is also compatible with other payloads, but its use in the Donbas appears limited to reconnaissance and target relay functions.

The Granat-4 has only been spotted a few times in 2015 while the Leer-3 has been widely used throughout the conflict, as previously reported by @DFRLab. The most recent sighting of a Leer-3 was in Luhansk oblast this past October, shortly before the downing of an Orlan-10 UAV — an integral component to the Leer-3 electronic warfare complex. The Leer-3 complex launches Orlan-10 drones to jam cellular signals by targeting cell towers, and replacing these towers to transmit text, audio, or video messages to nearby mobile devices. The Orlan-10 also serves a dual-use function as artillery reconnaissance. Recently, newer generations of the Orlan-10 gained the capability of targeting devices on 3G and 4G networks.

Leer-3

On October 1, 2018, LostArmour user danver posted an image of a truck moving on a road allegedly in non-government-controlled Luhansk oblast. The caption of the image suggested that the picture was taken that day, and while there was no way to confirm this, the vegetation and weather features matched with those visible on publicly available Planet satellite imagery.

@DFRLab verified the location was on the outskirts of Luhansk city by using the Yandex maps street view feature. The width of the road, scarcity of buildings, and matching lines for a trolleybus suggested that the photo was taken outside the city center, but not quite in a rural area. The street view imagery from 2012 did not show a billboard at this location, but Google Earth historical data showed that it was added sometime between 2012 and 2014.

Yandex street view map showing ulitsa Andreya Lineva in 2012 (top) and the corresponding satellite view with directional pinpoint (bottom). (Source: Disqus / LostArmor, Yandex)

The image was an unusually clear example of the Leer-3 system moving through Ukraine. In the image, the Leer-3 is headed west, the same general direction of Lysychansk where an Orlan-10 drone was shot down few weeks later. It is likely that the Orlan-10 was linked to this specific system.

Shown below is the Leer-3 in its standard Russian military camouflage pattern; this system is recognizable for its usage of a standard Kamaz-5350 chassis, a side hatch configuration, and a platform on top of its “box.”

Leer-3 in its standard Russian military camouflage pattern (Source: Disqus / LostArmor).

In contrast, the system in the photo wore local markings, including local military plates in the standard “ЛК 0000” (LK 0000) type pattern usually indicative of materiel in Russian-led separatist forces inventory in Luhansk oblast. This differs from the standard Russian military plates, as indicated below.

Left: standard Russian military vehicle plates; right: standard Russian-led separatist military vehicle plates. (Sources; left: Russian MoD; right: Informnapalm)

Additionally, this vehicle bore a tactical marking on the side of its cab, a box enveloping what appears to be the number 20. Russian, “Donetsk Peoples Republic” (DNR), and “Luhansk People’s Republic” (LNR) forces all use this style of tactical marking, which have different meanings depending on the origin of the marking. In this case, the number 20 in a square would most likely denote that the vehicle was embedded with military unit number 55055, the “Separate Reconnaissance Battalion” (ORB) of the so-called LNR.

A similar but unidentified vehicle with the same markings was spotted in Zhdanivka, Donetsk oblast in late December 2016, despite its Luhansk markings.

The practice of marking Russian vehicles with local plates and tactical markings has been a consistent trend throughout the conflict in eastern Ukraine. An April 2016 sighting of the Leer-3 put it in the “Separate Electronic Warfare Company” of the so-called DNR.

Earlier yet, in the lead-up to the 2015 battle for Debaltseve, a Leer-3 was spotted at the base of the so-called DNR “Separate Reconnaissance Battalion Sparta.” This Leer-3 had the Sparta license plates, with the unit’s iconic logo on its left side.

Russian EW systems in Donetsk city. (Source: VK / OIeg Grabovoy)

This base was a notorious dumping ground for Russian electronic warfare systems prior to the battle for Debaltseve. In the same image as the Leer-3, one of at least two R-381T “Taran” radio intelligence vehicles at the base was visible.

There were numerous other Leer-3 sightings throughout the conflict, it remains the most widely and consistently used Russian electronic warfare system in the Donbas to date.

Granat-4

The Granat-4 was far less common and likely less employed in the Donbas due to a reduced need for UAV reconnaissance for artillery fires since 2015. Even beyond the Donbas, this system does not appear as frequently as the Leer-3. The only verifiable images @DFRlab was able to find of its command vehicle were of its right side. @DFRlab noted two possible sightings of the command vehicle for the Granat-4. This vehicle is based on the four-wheeled Kamaz-4350 chassis, shorter than the six-wheeled Leer-3.

The two instances that @DFRLab spotted vehicles consistent with the features of the command vehicle were both from summer 2015, the same time that our previous reporting placed a Granat-4 in southern Donetsk.

Images of suspected Navodchik-2 command vehicles. (Sources: Left; VK / Ilya Kurachenko , Right; VK / Ruslan Svirid)

Due to a lack of reference images, it is difficult to verify the Granat-4 command vehicle as the picture only shows its left side. However, consistencies in chassis, box, and camouflage led to the conclusion that this was likely the same vehicle. One interesting detail in the right image is the extra fuel tank, which is not present on any standard Kamaz-4350 chassis. This was possibly a modification made for that deployment specifically, or to hold fuel for the UAVs.

At the Armiya-2018 military expo, photographer Vitaly Kuzmin posted an image of a vehicle denoted as the command vehicle for the Navodchik-2 UAV complex. While this complex also includes other UAVs of the Granat family (1 and 2), the Granat-4 is the only one with a truck-based command unit. Furthermore, this vehicle matched graphics depicting Granat-4 command vehicles at other expos. These vehicles showed a high degree similarity with those spotted in the Donbas.

Comparing photos of Navodchik-2 command vehicle in the Donbas and at Armiya 2018. (Sources: Left; VK / Ilya Kurachenko, Right; Vitaly Kuzmin)

Conclusion

In comparison to the Granat-4, the Leer-3 has had a far clearer and more persistent presence in the Donbas. This is likely attributable to the capabilities and inherent purposes of each system. With the frontlines remaining static, UAV reconnaissance is not as necessary to direct artillery fire against Ukrainian military forces. Conversely, the additional EW capabilities of the Leer-3 have a more timeless usage for Russian and Russian-led separatist forces, where damage can still be inflicted to Ukrainian forces without the same risk of escalating the conflict in a way that would be undesirable to them.


Michael Sheldon is an Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).

Follow the latest Minsk II Violations via the @DFRLab’s #MinskMonitor.

For more in-depth analysis from our regional experts follow the AtlanticCouncil’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center. Or subscribe to UkraineAlert.

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