Deadly secret: Electronic warfare shapes Russia-Ukraine war

Deadly secret: Electronic warfare shapes Russia-Ukraine war

KYIV, Ukraine — On Ukraine‘s battlefields, the simple act of powering up a cellphone can beckon a rain of deathly skyfall. Also, remote controls for unmanned aerial vehicle (artillery radar) may invite fiery shrapnel showers.

This electronic warfare is a crucial but largely unnoticed aspect of Russia’s war on Ukraine. Fearing that they might reveal secrets, military commanders are reluctant to discuss it.

Electronic warfare technology targets communications, navigation and guidance systems to locate, blind and deceive the enemy and direct lethal blows. It can be used against artillery and fighter jets, cruise missiles and drones, as well as other weapons. It is also used by militias to protect their troops.

This is an area Russia was believed to have a clear advantage in the war. It was not evident that Russia’s much-lauded electronic warfare prowess could be seen in the war’s beginning stages, when it failed to seize the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv.

Russia’s electronic warfare gear has been moving closer to the battlefield in eastern Ukraine because it is easier to defend and maintain shorter supply lines.

“They’re jamming every channel their systems can reach,” said an Aerorozvidka official, a reconnaissance team made up of unmanned aerial vehicle tinkerers from Ukraine. He spoke under anonymity due to safety concerns. “We can’t claim they dominate, but we are greatly hindered by them.” A Ukrainian intelligence official described the Russian threat as “pretty serious” in regards to disrupting reconnaissance efforts and commanders communications with troops. Russian jamming GPS receivers on drones used by Ukraine to locate the enemy and fire artillery is particularly intense “on line of contact”, he stated.

Ukraine’s electronic warfare countermeasures have had some success. It has captured key pieces of hardware, a significant intelligence coup, and destroyed at most two multi-vehicle mobile electronics warfare units.

Its electronic warfare capabilities are difficult to assess. Analysts believe it has improved significantly since 2014,, when Russia seized Crimea and instigated an eastern Ukrainian separatist rebellion. There are still setbacks. Russia claimed last week that it had destroyed the Ukrainian electronic intelligence center in Dniprovske, a southeastern city. The claim could not independently be confirmed and Ukrainian officials didn’t respond to a request to comment.

Ukraine also makes effective use of intelligence and technology from the United States and other NATO member countries. This information was crucial in helping Ukraine sink the battle cruiser Moskva. Satellites and surveillance aircraft from allies as well as billionaire Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite communication network, help from nearby skies.

Electronic war has three basic elements: probe, attack and protect. First, intelligence can be gathered by locating electronic signals from enemy systems. “White noise” jamming disables or degrades enemy systems (including radio and cellphone communications) during an attack. Spoofing is another option that confuses and deceives. If it works, munitions miss the targets.

“Operating on a modern battlefield without data is really hard,” said retired Col. Laurie Buckhout, a former U.S. Army electronic warfare chief. Jamming can blind and deafen aircraft very quickly, especially if GPS and radar are lost and you’re flying at 600 mph. All of this explains why electronic warfare is so secretive.

“This field is extremely classified because it is dependent on developing, bleeding-edge technology where gains can easily be copied and erased very quickly,” stated James Stidham who is a communications security expert and has consulted for the U.S. State Department and Homeland Security departments.

Ukraine had to learn hard lessons about electronic warfare from 2014 as well as 2015, Russia’s overwhelming of its forces. The Russians destroyed drones and disabled warheads, tapped into cellphone networks for psychological operations, and zeroed in upon Ukrainian armor.

A Ukrainian officer told Christian Brose (an aide to the late U.S. Senator John McCain, R.Ariz.) how Russian info warriors tricked him into returning a 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 U.S. also experienced Russia’s electronic warfare in action in Syria, where the adversaries have backed opposing sides in the civil war. In 2018, U.S. Special Operations chief General Raymond Thomas described how U.S. Pilots’ communications were constantly “knocked down” in Syria, in the “most aggressive electronic warfare environment” on the planet. Russia’s advanced systems can blind U.S. Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) aircraft. They are the eyes and ears for battlefield commanders, as well as cruise missiles and spy spacecrafts.

Electronic warfare is a raging theater of contention in the current war.

Aerorozvidka has modified camera-equipped drones to pinpoint enemy positions and drop mortars and grenades. Hacking can also be used to disable or poison enemy electronics and gather intelligence. Officials from

Ukraine claim that their electronic warfare capabilities have significantly improved since 2015.. These include the use encrypted U.S. and Turkish communications gear to give a tactical edge. Some of the technology that Ukraine has developed is exported.

Russia has engaged GPS jamming across areas from Finland to Russia, according to Lt. Col. Tyson Wetzel of the Atlantic Council. Transaviabaltica, a regional Finnish carrier, had to cancel flights on a single route for a week due to the jamming. According to Frank Backes, an executive at Kratos Defense in California, which has satellite ground stations throughout the region, Russian jamming also disrupted Ukrainian television broadcasting.

But, Russia’s electronic warfare use was less efficient and more extensive than expected in the early days of the war. This may have contributed to Russia’s inability to destroy enough radar and antiaircraft units to gain air supremacy.

Russian defense ministry did not respond when asked for comment on this article.

Some analysts believe that Russian commanders kept back units in fear of being captured. At least two units were seized. One of them was a Krasukha-4. According to a U.S. Army database, it is capable of jamming satellite signals as well surveillance radar and radar-guided weapon systems from more than 100 km ( miles kilometers) away. The second is the more advanced Borisoglebsk-2 which can jam radio-controlled landmines and drone guidance systems.

Russia may also have limited electronic warfare’s use early in the conflict, due to concerns that poorly trained or motivated technicians might not be able to operate it properly.

“We now know that the Russians turned it off after it interfered with their communications so much,” stated retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges. He was a former commander for Europe in the U.S Army.

The communications problems were obvious with many Russian troops using insecure open radio channels that could easily be viewed by outsiders.

It’s not clear how much advantage Russia’s electronic assets might now offer. The Ukrainian forces are more concentrated now than they were at the beginning of the war, which could make it easier to target. Much depends on whether Russia’s tactical battalion groups “are as configured in reality” as they appear on paper, said James Rands of Jane’s military intelligence think-tank. Each group, comprised of roughly 1,000 troops, is supposed to have an electronic warfare unit. According to the Pentagon, 110 such units are located in Ukraine.

The Kremlin also claims to have more than 1,000 small, versatile Orlan-10 unmanned aerial vehicles it uses for reconnaissance, targeting, jamming and cellphone interception.

Russia has lost about 50 of its Orlan-10s in the war, but “whatever they lost could be a small portion of what’s flying,” said researcher Samuel Bendett, of the Center for Naval Analyses think tank.

Ukraine is not sure of its relative UAV strength, but the Ukrainians have used software-defined radio and 3D printers to remain agile.

The U.S. and Britain also supply jamming equipment, but it is not clear how much. Both countries have not provided details. With the artillery they have scouted now so crucial in battles, it is vital that both sides can disable the drones of the other.

Musk has a proven asset: Starlink. Its more than 2,200 low-orbiting satellites provide broadband internet to more than 150,000 Ukrainian ground stations. Russia faces a challenge in severing these connections. It is much more difficult to jam geostationary satellites than low-earth orbiting ones.

Musk won plaudits at the Pentagon for temporarily defeating Russian jamming Ukrainian satellite uplinks using a quick software fix. He has warned Ukrainians to keep their terminals powered down whenever possible, as they are vulnerable to geolocation. Recently, he was worried about Russian interference.

” “I’m sure the Russians have become smarter about this now,” stated Wetzel, the Air Force lieutenant Colonel.


Bajak reported from Boston. Lolita C. Baldor, AP correspondent, contributed from Washington.

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