Deadly secret: electronic warfare is shaping the war between Russia and Ukraine

Electronic warfare is a crucial but largely invisible aspect of Russia’s war against Ukraine. Military commanders largely avoid discussing this for fear of jeopardizing the operation by revealing secrets.

In this handout photo provided by the press service of the Russian Ministry of Defense on September 19, 2021, the Palantin-K EW system stands during a rehearsal in the Voronezh region of Russia.

The press service of the Russian Defense Ministry through the AP

In this handout photo provided by the press service of the Russian Ministry of Defense on May 9, 2018, the Palantin EW systems stand during a rehearsal of the Victory Parade on May 9 in Voronezh, Russia.

The press service of the Russian Defense Ministry through the AP

This image, presented by the Ukrainian airborne assault forces, shows a Russian unmanned aerial vehicle that was shot down in May 2022. Electronic warfare is a vital, largely invisible element in Russia’s war against Ukraine. At the beginning of the war, the Kremlin barely used its advantage in this area. But this region may be more decisive now that fighting is on a more static front in the eastern Donbass.

Ukrainian assault troops through the AP

In the handout provided by the press service of the Russian Ministry of Defense on October 8, 2021, the crews of the Palantin complexes of a separate battalion of electronic warfare of the all-military army of the Western Military District during special exercises at the Pogonov test site in Russia. .

The press service of the Russian Defense Ministry through the AP

Kyiv, Ukraine (AP) – On the battlefields of Ukraine, the simple inclusion of a mobile phone can cause deadly rain. Artillery radar and remote controls for unmanned aerial vehicles can also cause shrapnel fire.

This is an electronic war, a critical but largely invisible aspect of Russia’s war against Ukraine. Military commanders largely avoid discussing this for fear of jeopardizing the operation by revealing secrets.

Electronic warfare technology aims at communication, navigation and guidance systems to locate, blind and deceive the enemy and inflict deadly blows. Used against artillery, fighters, cruise missiles, drones and more. The military also uses it to protect their forces.

This is an area where Russia was believed to have a clear advantage in the war. However, for reasons that are not entirely clear, his widely advertised abilities in the field of electronic warfare were almost unnoticed in the early stages of the war in the chaotic failure to capture the Ukrainian capital Kyiv.

This has become a much bigger factor in fierce fighting in eastern Ukraine, where shorter and easier to defend supply lines allow Russia to move electronic warfare equipment closer to the battlefield.

“They are jamming everything their systems can achieve,” said an Aerointelligence official, an intelligence group of Ukrainian unmanned aerial vehicle operators, who spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons. “You can’t say they dominate, but they hinder us a lot.”

A Ukrainian intelligence officer called the Russian threat “quite serious” when it comes to disrupting intelligence and communication between commanders and the military. Particularly intense “on the line of contact” are Russia’s obstacles to GPS receivers on drones, which Ukraine uses to determine the location of the enemy, and direct artillery fire.

Ukraine has made some progress in countering Russia’s efforts in electronic warfare. He seized important pieces of equipment – a significant intelligence coup – and destroyed at least two mobile electronic warfare vehicles with several vehicles.

Its own capabilities in electronic warfare are difficult to assess. Analysts say it has improved markedly since 2014, when Russia seized Crimea and launched a separatist uprising in eastern Ukraine. But there are setbacks. Last week, Russia said it had destroyed a Ukrainian e-intelligence center in the southeastern city of Dnipro. Independently confirmed the allegation failed, 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. Such information helped Ukraine sink the combat cruiser “Moscow”. Allied satellites and reconnaissance planes, as well as billionaire Ilona Mask’s Starlink satellite network, are helping from the neighboring sky.

Electronic warfare consists of three main elements: probe, attack and defense. First, intelligence is gathered by identifying electronic signals from the enemy. During an attack, “white noise” disables and degrades enemy systems, including radio and mobile communications, air defense and artillery radar. What follows is a deception that confuses and deceives. When this works, the ammunition does not hit its target.

“It is very difficult to operate on a modern battlefield without data,” said retired Colonel Lori Buckhaut, a former U.S. Army chief of electronic warfare. Muffling “can blind and stun an airplane very quickly and very dangerously, especially if you lose GPS and radar and you’re an airplane flying at 600 miles per hour.”

All this explains the secrecy surrounding electronic warfare.

“This is an incredibly secretive area because it is heavily dependent on evolution, state-of-the-art technology, where revenue can be copied and removed very quickly,” said James Steedham, a communications security expert who has advised U.S. National and Homeland Security.

Ukraine learned the hard lessons of electronic warfare in 2014 and 2015, when Russia defeated it with its forces. The Russians shot down drones and turned off warheads, infiltrated mobile phone networks for psychological operations and attacked Ukrainian armor.

One Ukrainian officer told Christian Broz, an aide to the late U.S. Senator John McCain, Arizona, about how Russian information warriors tricked the commander into answering a wireless call from his mother. When he did, they identified his geolocation in the middle of a call and killed him with high-precision missiles, Brose wrote in the book Chain of Murders.

The United States also experienced Russia’s electronic warfare in Syria, where opponents supported opposing sides in the civil war. In 2018, U.S. Special Operations Chief General Raymond Thomas described how communications by U.S. pilots regularly “got lost” in Syria in the “most aggressive” electronic warfare environment on the planet. Advanced Russian systems are designed to blind American airborne warning and control systems, or AWACS, aircraft – the eyes and ears of commanders on the battlefield – as well as cruise missiles and spy satellites.

In the current war, electronic warfare has turned into a fierce theater of showdown.

“Air Reconnaissance” has modified drones with a camera to accurately determine the position of the enemy and drop mortars and grenades. Hacking is also used to poison or disable enemy electronics and gather intelligence.

Ukrainian officials say their ability to wage electronic warfare has improved dramatically since 2015. These include the use of encrypted US and Turkish communications for tactical advantage. Ukraine is so advanced that it exports some of its technologies.

Russia is engaged in GPS jamming in areas from Finland to the Black Sea, said Lt. Col. Tyson Wetzel, an employee of the Atlantic Council. As a result, one regional Finnish carrier Transaviabaltica was forced to cancel flights on one route for a week. Russia’s jamming has also disrupted Ukrainian television, said Frank Bekes, head of California-based Kratos Defense, which has satellite ground stations in the region.

However, in the early days of the war, Russia’s use of electronic warfare was less effective and widespread than previously thought. This could have contributed to the fact that it did not destroy enough radar and anti-aircraft units to gain an advantage in the air.

Russia’s Defense Ministry has not responded to a request for comment on the article.

Some analysts believe that Russian commanders held back the units, fearing that the units would be captured. At least two were arrested. One of them was “Krasukha-4”, which, according to the US Army database, is designed to suppress satellite signals, as well as surveillance radars and weapons with radar guidance at a distance of more than 100 miles (160 kilometers). Another: more advanced “Borisoglebsk-2”, which can silence drone guidance systems and radio-controlled landmines.

Russia may also have restricted the use of electronic warfare at the beginning of the conflict for fears that poorly trained or poorly motivated technical personnel might not manage it properly.

“We will now learn that the Russians eventually turned him off because he interfered so much with their communications,” said retired Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, a former U.S. military commander in Europe.

Communication problems were evident when many Russian servicemen spoke on unprotected open radio channels that were easily controlled by outsiders.

It is unclear how much Russian electronic assets can now offer. Ukraine’s armed forces are now more concentrated than at the beginning of the war, which could make their goal easier.

Much depends on whether Russian battalion tactical groups are “actually formulated as they are on paper,” said James Rands of Jane’s Military Intelligence think tank. Each group, consisting of about 1,000 troops, must have an electronic warfare unit. The Pentagon says there are 110 such groups in Ukraine.

The Kremlin also claims to have more than 1,000 small Arlan-10 universal unmanned aerial vehicles, which it uses to reconnoiter, target, jam and intercept mobile phones.

Russia lost about 50 of its Orlan-10s in the war, but “what they lost may be a small part of what is flying,” said researcher Samuel Bendet of the Center for Naval Analysis.

The relative strength of Ukraine’s UAVs is unclear, but Ukrainians have adapted technologies such as radio software and 3D printing to stay agile.

The US and the UK are also supplying jamming equipment, but how much this helps is unclear. None of the countries offered details. The ability of both sides to disable the other’s drones is crucial to the artillery they are reconnaissance now, so crucial in combat.

Starlink Mask is a proven asset. Its more than 2,200 low-orbit satellites provide broadband Internet access to more than 150,000 ground stations in Ukraine. The rupture of these ties is a problem for Russia. It is much more difficult to drown out low-orbit satellites than geostationary ones.

Musk received an award from the Pentagon for at least temporarily overcoming the Russian obstacle to Ukrainian satellite channels through a quick software fix. But he warned Ukrainians to turn off these terminals if possible – they are vulnerable to geolocation – and recently worried on Twitter about Russia’s double intervention.

“I’m sure the Russians are getting smarter now,” said Wetzel, a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force.

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Bayak reported from Boston. AP correspondent Lolita S. Baldor spoke from Washington.

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