High-tech American weapons work against Russia—until they don’t

A Himars system on Ukraine’s Southern front in September 2022. ADRIENNE SURPRENANT/MYOP FOR WSJ
A Himars system on Ukraine’s Southern front in September 2022. ADRIENNE SURPRENANT/MYOP FOR WSJ

Summary

Moscow is learning how to defeat Western precision munitions in Ukraine. “The Russians have gotten really, really good.”

The Excalibur artillery round performed wonders when it was introduced into the Ukrainian battlefield in the summer of 2022. Guided by GPS, the shells hit Russian tanks and artillery with surgical precision, as drones overhead filmed the resulting fireballs.

That didn’t last.

Within weeks, the Russian army started to adapt, using its formidable electronic warfare capabilities. It managed to interfere with the GPS guidance and fuzes, so that the shells would either go astray, fail to detonate, or both. By the middle of last year, the M982 Excalibur munitions, developed by RTX and BAE Systems, became essentially useless and are no longer employed, Ukrainian commanders say.

Several other weapons that showcased the West’s technological superiority have encountered a similar fate. Russian electronic countermeasures have significantly reduced the precision of GPS-guided missiles fired by Himars systems, the weapon credited for reversing the momentum of the war in Ukraine’s favor in the summer of 2022, Ukrainian military officials say.

A brand-new system, the Ground-Launched Small Diameter Bomb munition, manufactured by Boeing and Sweden’s Saab, has failed altogether after its introduction in recent months, in part because of Russian electronic warfare, Ukrainian and Western officials say. It is no longer in use in Ukraine pending an overhaul.

The Pentagon declined to discuss the performance of specific U.S. weapons systems, citing operational security.

Some of the other Western precision weapons, provided more recently, continue to strike high-value Russian targets. U.S.-made ATACMS ballistic missiles and the Storm Shadow cruise missiles manufactured by Franco-British-Italian defense company MBDA have devastated several airfields, command centers and communications facilities in Russian-occupied Crimea and other parts of the country this year. A number of Russia’s vaunted S-400 air defense batteries were among the successful hits.

For these weapons, too, it’s only a matter of time before Russia learns how to reduce the effectiveness and improve interception rates, Ukrainian military officials and Western defense experts say.

“We should assume that adaptation will always occur, and the Russians have adapted to a variety of things," said Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. “The capabilities will be most effective immediately after they are introduced, and adversaries will develop countermeasures over time."

Precision vs. mass

Russia’s success in electronic countermeasures—closely watched by China, with whom Moscow is believed to share some of its battlefield lessons in dealing with Western weaponry—poses a strategic problem for the U.S. and allies.

Western military doctrine has long relied on a belief that precision can defeat mass—meaning that well-targeted strikes can cripple a more numerous enemy, reducing the need for massive expenditure on troops, tanks and artillery.

That proposition, however, had not been tested in a major war until Ukraine. The introduction of Western weapons there showed that what may have worked against Saddam Hussein’s army, the Taliban or Islamic State guerrillas won’t necessarily perform against a modern military like Russia’s or China’s.

“We have probably made some bad assumptions because over the last 20 years we were launching precision weapons against people that could not do anything about it," said retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, a former commander of the U.S. Army in Europe. “Now we are doing it against a peer opponent, and Russia and China do have these capabilities."

One of the lessons learned in Ukraine is about the continuing importance of old-school unguided artillery shells, the manufacturing of which is only now beginning to pick up in the U.S. and Europe after decades of decline, said Lt. Gen. Esa Pulkkinen, the permanent secretary of Finland’s defense ministry. “They are immune to any type of jamming, and they will go to target regardless of what type of electronic warfare capability there may be," he said.

William LaPlante, the U.S. deputy secretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, acknowledged in recent remarks Russia’s successes in disrupting precision munitions. “The Russians have gotten really, really good," he said.

Cat-and-mouse game

In every war, the introduction of a new weapons system prompts the enemy to develop countermeasures to blunt its effect, sparking a cycle of innovation in a cat-and-mouse game that goes back to the invention of the spear and the shield.

Russia has upgraded and revised its Iranian-designed Shahed drones as the Ukrainians adopted new ways of detecting and shooting them down. Russia is also constantly improving its cruise and ballistic missiles to make it more difficult for Ukraine’s Western-supplied air defenses to intercept them, Ukrainian Air Force spokesman Yuriy Ignat said after a Russian barrage killed 33 people Monday in Kyiv.

For Ukraine, time is an essential factor—and the carefully limited and gradual introduction of many Western systems has provided Russia with the ability to minimize their impact. “Warfare is about the speed of adaptation," said retired Air Marshal Edward Stringer, a former head of operations at the British Ministry of Defense. “If you drip-feed an antibiotic weekly, you’ll actually train the pathogen—and we have trained the pathogen….We didn’t need to give them that time, but we did."

Anna Gvozdiar, Ukraine’s deputy minister of strategic industries—an agency that oversees the country’s defense manufacturing—said she was frustrated by the inability of some Western manufacturers to adapt. “We learn faster because we are on the front line, we have to make decisions to survive," she said.

Some of Ukraine’s Western partners are taking notice. In January, Stockholm launched a government initiative to make sure that Sweden’s own defense manufacturers react more quickly to the lessons learned in Ukraine. “One of the things that is really amazing is the Ukrainian ability to innovate and how quickly their innovation cycles are moving. The things that would take five years to develop in Sweden are done in five weeks in Ukraine," Sweden’s Defense Minister Pål Jonson said in an interview. “Aggressively attacking bureaucracy is vital if you want to be good on innovation."

When it comes to Ukrainian-made weapons like drones, models that worked just a few months earlier are no longer efficient on the battlefield because of the constantly evolving technology, said a Ukrainian intelligence official. “It’s like updating software on your phone—we and the Russians have to do it every month, to keep up," the official said. “But when we get weapons from the West, the manufacturer put in its software many years ago, and rarely wants to change anything."

Many of the American weapons provided to Ukraine, especially under the presidential drawdown authority, are older systems that are being phased out by the U.S. military and replaced with more modern, and usually more expensive, products that aren’t necessarily shared with Kyiv. That provides few incentives for manufacturers to upgrade legacy precision munitions, said an executive at a U.S. defense company.

Leading U.S. defense manufacturers RTX and Boeing referred all questions to the Pentagon. A spokesperson for Lockheed Martin, which manufactures GMLRS missiles for Himars, replied to a query about these munitions’ battlefield performance by saying that “questions about U.S. or foreign military operations are best addressed by those governments."

A U.S. defense official said that the Pentagon is “very aware" of the continuously evolving electronic-warfare threat posed by Russia in Ukraine and has worked closely with Ukraine and defense industry partners to rapidly address threats and ensure that American precision weapons remain effective in a very complex electronic-warfare environment. In some cases, working with industry, the U.S. has been able to provide options for Ukrainian forces within hours or days, the official added.

While Moscow has had successes against older generations of Western precision weapons, some of the more sophisticated systems are being withheld precisely so that Russia—and through it, China—wouldn’t develop effective countermeasures, military officials say. In a potential war, the U.S. and allies would have much more powerful capabilities, starting with massive air power.

“We don’t want to overlearn lessons from Ukraine," LaPlante, the deputy secretary of defense, said at a presentation in April. “They are fighting, necessarily so, in the way that we would not necessarily fight."

Some Ukrainian officials and Western military analysts, however, say they are dismayed by what they perceive as U.S. military officials and defense companies minimizing the problems faced by precision-guidance systems in Ukraine or ascribing them to poor training of Ukrainian troops.

“There is quite a bit of learning, but unfortunately the U.S. military is also learning things about this war that are not necessarily true, and what is being learned is filtered through the conceit that many of the problems faced by the Ukrainian military would not be faced by the U.S. armed forces, or could be easily overcome," said Michael Kofman, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment who has frequently visited Ukrainian front-line units.

Cold War development

Russia’s focus on electronic warfare dates back to the development of Western precision weapons in the final decade of the Cold War, a breakthrough that disrupted the balance of power created by the Soviet and Western nuclear arsenals.

Weapons like Excalibur and the GMLRS missiles were designed decades ago—and so it’s not surprising that Russian electronic warfare equipment, specifically created to counter this threat, proved able to do so once deployed on a large scale.

Many modern Western precision munitions rely, at least in part, on satellite navigation to hit their targets. By the summer of 2023, the Russians focused on using their mass of electronic-warfare capabilities to jam or spoof satellite navigation within a belt some 40 miles wide along the 800-mile-long front line.

Russia’s own precision munitions, such as Krasnopol shells, rely on laser designation by Orlan-30 drones that continued to operate without GPS guidance. The U.S. has supplied Ukraine with comparable M712 Copperhead artillery rounds, but Ukrainian forces rarely use them because of a shortage of compatible drones to designate targets, Ukrainian troops say.

More recently, Russia introduced at scale the enhanced Kometa-M satellite guidance kit that’s far more resistant to Ukrainian jamming and that has allowed Russian glide bombs to be used to devastating effect against Ukrainian positions.

Russian interference proved particularly successful with Excaliburs, which used fuzes programmed to explode at a certain altitude, and because of GPS tampering failed to detonate altogether, Ukrainian troops say. Other precision-guided artillery shells, such as the Bonus rounds produced by France and Sweden, have also been rendered less effective by Russian jamming.

The picture is more complex with GMLRS munitions for Himars. Deviation varies depending on distance—with shorter-range strikes more susceptible to GPS spoofing—and can reach several dozen yards, Ukrainian soldiers say. That’s a big issue for the M31-type GMLRS missile with a unitary warhead, which was used to great success in 2022 to target Russian bunkers, command centers, pontoons, weapons depots and hardened equipment.

A deviation of some 10 to 30 yards for that munition is the difference between a hit and a miss. The reduced precision is less of a problem for the M30-type GMLRS missile, which upon impact sprays a wide area with a shower of tungsten balls. Ukraine is continuing to use that munition to hit Russian artillery positions as part of counterbattery fire, Ukrainian soldiers say.

For both types of missiles, precision can be improved with better electronic-warfare reconnaissance and more advanced tactics, soldiers say.

A Ukrainian reconnaissance unit commander who guided some 300 Excalibur rounds onto Russian targets in 2022 and 2023 remembered fondly just how devastating that munition used to be. “It’s cheap, it’s versatile, it was the real weapon of victory," he said. “It could become that again if it were modernized to adapt to the changed battlefield. But, as far as we know, it’s not being modernized."

Alistair MacDonald contributed to this article.

Write to Yaroslav Trofimov at yaroslav.trofimov@wsj.com

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