KYIV, Ukraine — On Ukrainian battlefields, the simple act of turning on a cellphone can unleash deadly rain. Artillery radars and remote controls from unmanned aerial vehicles can also invite showers of flaming shrapnel.
This is electronic warfare, a critical but largely invisible aspect of Russia’s war against Ukraine. Military commanders largely avoid discussing it, fearing to jeopardize operations by revealing secrets.
Electronic warfare technology targets communication, navigation and guidance systems to locate, blind and deceive the enemy and direct deadly blows. It is used against artillery, fighter jets, cruise missiles, drones and more. The military also use it to protect their forces.
This is an area where Russia was thought to have a clear advantage early in the war. Yet, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, its vaunted electronic warfare prowess was barely seen at the start of the war during the chaotic failure to take the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv.
It has become far more of a factor in the fierce fighting in eastern Ukraine, where shorter, more defensible supply lines allow Russia to bring electronic warfare equipment closer to the battlefield.
“They jam everything their systems can reach,” said an official from Aerorozvidka, a reconnaissance team of Ukrainian unmanned aerial vehicle tinkerers, who spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons. “You can’t say that they dominate, but they hinder us enormously.”
A Ukrainian intelligence official called the Russian threat “rather serious” when it comes to disrupting reconnaissance efforts and commanders’ communications with troops. Russian jamming of GPS receivers on drones that Ukraine uses to locate the enemy and direct artillery fire is particularly intense “on the line of contact”, he said.
Ukraine has had some successes in countering Russia’s electronic warfare efforts. It captured significant materiel – a significant intelligence coup – and destroyed at least two mobile multi-vehicle electronic warfare units.
Its own electronic warfare capability is difficult to assess. Analysts say it has improved markedly since 2014, when Russia seized Crimea and sparked a separatist uprising in eastern Ukraine. But there are setbacks. Last week, Russia claimed to have destroyed a Ukrainian electronic intelligence center in the southeastern city of Dniprovske. The claim could not be independently confirmed and Ukrainian officials did not respond to a request for comment.
Ukraine has also made effective use of technology and intelligence from the United States and other NATO members. This information helped Ukraine sink the battlecruiser Moskva. Allied satellites and surveillance planes are helping from nearby skies, as is billionaire Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite communications network.
Electronic warfare has three basic elements: probe, attack and protect. First, intelligence is gathered by locating enemy electronic signals. During an attack, “white noise” jamming disables and degrades enemy systems, including radio and cellular communications, air defense and artillery radars. Then there is spoofing, which confuses and misleads. When it works, the rounds miss their targets.
“It’s really hard to operate on a modern battlefield without data,” said retired Col. Laurie Buckhout, former chief of electronic warfare for the US Army. Jamming “can blind and deafen an aircraft very quickly and very dangerously, especially if you lose GPS and radar and you’re a 600 mph aircraft.”
All of this explains the secrecy around electronic warfare.
“It’s an incredibly classified area because it relies heavily on advanced, evolving technologies where gains can be copied and erased very quickly,” said James Stidham, a communications security expert who has consulted with US security departments. domestic and state.
Ukraine learned hard lessons about electronic warfare in 2014 and 2015, when Russia overwhelmed its forces with it. The Russians have dropped drones from the sky and disabled warheads, penetrated cell phone networks for psychological operations and focused on Ukrainian armour.
A Ukrainian officer told Christian Brose, an aide to the late U.S. Senator John McCain, R-Arizona, how Russian information warriors tricked a commander into returning a wireless call from his mother. When he did, they geolocated him in mid-call and killed him with precision rockets, Brose wrote in the book “The Kill Chain.”
The United States has also experienced Russian electronic warfare in action in Syria, where adversaries have supported opposing sides in the civil war. In 2018, the head of US special operations, General Raymond Thomas, described how American pilots’ communications were regularly “cut off” in Syria in the “most aggressive” electronic warfare environment on the planet. Russia’s advanced systems are designed to blind US airborne warning and control systems, or AWACS, aircraft – the eyes and ears of battlefield commanders – as well as cruise missiles and spy satellites.
In today’s warfare, electronic warfare has become a furious theater of contention.
Aerorozvidka modified drones equipped with cameras to locate enemy positions and drop mortars and grenades. Hacking is also used to poison or disable enemy electronics and gather intelligence.
Ukrainian officials say their electronic warfare capabilities have improved dramatically since 2015. These include the use of encrypted US and Turkish communications equipment for tactical advantage. Ukraine has come so far that it exports some of its technology.
Russia has engaged in GPS jamming in areas from Finland to the Black Sea, said Lt. Col. Tyson Wetzel, an air force member at the Atlantic Council. As a result, a Finnish regional carrier, Transaviabaltica, had to cancel flights on one route for a week. The Russian jamming also disrupted Ukrainian television broadcasting, said Frank Backes, an executive with California-based Kratos Defense, which has satellite ground stations in the region.
Yet early in the war, Russia’s use of electronic warfare was less effective and less extensive than expected. This may have contributed to his inability to destroy enough radar and anti-aircraft units to gain air superiority.
The Russian Defense Ministry did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
Some analysts believe that Russian commanders held back units fearing they would be captured. At least two were seized. One was a Krasukha-4, which, according to a US military database, is designed to jam satellite signals as well as surveillance radars and radar-guided weapons from over 100 miles away. The other: the more advanced Borisoglebsk-2, which can jam drone guidance systems and radio-controlled landmines.
Russia may also have limited the use of electronic warfare early in the conflict, fearing that poorly trained or poorly motivated technicians would operate it properly.
“What we’re learning now is that the Russians eventually turned it off because it was interfering so much with their own communications,” said retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, former commander of the U.S. Army for Europe.
Communication problems were evident with many Russian troops talking on unsecured open radio channels, easily monitored by outsiders.
It is unclear what advantage Russia’s electronic assets can now provide. Ukrainian forces are now more concentrated than at the start of the war, which could make them easier to target.
It all depends on whether the Russian battalion’s battlegroups “are set up in reality as they are on paper,” said James Rands of Jane’s military intelligence think tank. Each group, consisting of around 1,000 soldiers, is supposed to have an electronic warfare unit. The Pentagon says 110 of these groups are in Ukraine.
The Kremlin also claims to have more than 1,000 small multi-purpose Orlan-10 unmanned aerial vehicles which it uses for reconnaissance, targeting, jamming and cell phone interception.
Russia lost about 50 of its Orlan-10s during the war, but “all they lost could be a small part of what’s flying,” said researcher Samuel Bendett, of the Center for Naval Analyzes think tank. .
The relative strength of Ukrainian drones is unclear, but the Ukrainians have adapted technologies such as software-defined radio and 3D printing to stay nimble.
The United States and Britain also provide jamming equipment, but it’s unclear how much that helps. Neither country provided details. The ability of both sides to disable the other’s drones is crucial with the artillery they now spot so decisive in battles.
Musk’s Starlink is a proven asset. Its more than 2,200 low-orbit satellites provide high-speed Internet access to more than 150,000 Ukrainian ground stations. Severing these connections is a challenge for Russia. It is much more difficult to jam satellites in low Earth orbit than geostationary satellites.
Musk was applauded by the Pentagon for at least temporarily defeating Russian jamming of Ukrainian satellite uplinks with a quick software fix. But he warned Ukrainians to keep such terminals off whenever possible – they are vulnerable to geolocation – and recently expressed concern on Twitter about increased Russian interference efforts.
“I’m sure the Russians are getting smarter about it now,” said Wetzel, the Air Force Lt. Col.