A Russian serviceman prepares to launch a drone during a military exercise. Photo Credit: RIA Novosti.
By: Madison Creery, Columnist
The U.S. has spent nearly two decades dedicated to counterterrorism operations where it enjoyed significant qualitative and quantitative advantages over adversaries. In these conflicts, the U.S. was able to quickly gain local air, sea, and land superiority with relatively low risk to its armed forces.[I] However, as the U.S. turns toward near-peer competition, the days of permissive deployments are quickly coming to an end. Instead, US forces must now fight their way through a degraded information environment on a daily basis, facing a diminished ability to synchronize and execute operations. Most concerning are the growing capabilities of adversaries in the realm of electronic warfare (EW). Remarkably, it is Russia that presents some of the stiffest competition, with increasing agreement among experts in the field that Russia has taken a huge, and somewhat unexpected, leap forward in its EW capabilities.[II] Although the U.S. continues to possess military superiority in conventional weapons, Moscow now possesses a critical asymmetrical advantage that seeks to bridge this gap.[III] In an age of renewed competition with Russia, the U.S. will need to increase its proficiency in EW missions or risk falling behind.
Electronic Warfare and the Growing Russian Threat
Electronic Warfare Basics
EW has become a common buzzword in the defense community, though it is not always well understood. Its purpose is to deny an adversary from gaining control of, and an advantage in, the electromagnetic (EM) spectrum, while still ensuring friendly and unimpeded access for oneself and one’s allies.[IV] It is employed to support military operations in three ways: electronic attack, electronic protection, and electronic support. Jamming is a key tool in electronic attack, and one that is commonly referenced in EW literature. The goal is to emit “noise” in an over-powered signal strong enough to overload the adversary’s receivers. The result is a jamming of the signal that the receiving system is trying to detect, interrupting communications altogether.[V] Electronic protection involves guarding one’s own systems from these very attacks by hardening electronic sensors and by conducting electronic emission control so it is more difficult for an adversary to locate a target. Finally, electronic support are actions that search for, intercept, identify, and locate sources of EM emissions for the purpose of enabling the previous two functions. This can also be thought of as the reconnaissance element of EW. Countries like Russia and the U.S. are concerned about EW because key objectives like gaining air superiority greatly depend on achieving EW supremacy. Without it, an adversary can disrupt and degrade the navigation systems on precision guided munitions (PGMs) and cause missiles to go off course, as well as suppress a country’s air defense systems through jamming.
Russian Electronic Warfare: A Learning Curve
Although Russia’s EW capabilities are a daunting challenge to the U.S. today, this was not always the case. During the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, Russian EW capabilities were limited.[VI] While Russia’s ground forces made gains against the Georgian army, its air force was unable to suppress Georgia’s air defense systems through jamming efforts, resulting in the loss of numerous Russian aircraft.[VII] Learning from this experience, Russia has since prioritized investing in EW tools, with Russian President Vladimir Putin ordering at least 70% of all Russian EW equipment modernized by 2020.[VIII] According to Deputy Defense Minister Yuri Borisov, that figure is now closer to 80 or 90 percent.[IX] In 2009, Russia also formed units entirely dedicated to EW operations.[X] Still, the overall number of soldiers serving in EW units is relatively low, as they must undergo specialist training to become proficient in all EW tools. With contract servicemen making up roughly 55% of these units today, Russia has a goal of making all units staffed with only professional servicemen in the near future.[XI]
Russian EW Weapons
While there are numerous systems dedicated to EW at the disposal of the Russian Armed Forces, several stick out from the rest. The first is the Borisoglebsk-2, a system designed to jam mobile satellite communications and radio-navigational units.[XII] The Borisoglebsk-2 is most notable for the role it played in eastern Ukraine, allegedly impeding the use of Ukrainian drones by suppressing incoming GPS signals.[XIII] Another system commonly used by Russia is the Moskva-1, the nerve center for Russia’s air defenses and other electronic countermeasure systems.[XIV] This system monitors electronic emissions within a 400 km range in real time on all frequency ranges, carrying out electronic intelligence-gathering and conducting jamming and electronic suppression whenever needed. Russia’s Krasukha-2 EW system also possesses the ability to analyze signal types and then jam adversary’s radar.[XV] However, a unique feature is its capacity to provide a false target once the system has been jammed, leading the aircraft to fly away from its original target, protecting Russian forces from attack.
Finally, a notable tool in Russia’s EW kit similar to the Krasukha-2 is Russia’s ability to spoof signals.[XVI] Spoofing is when an actor mimics, or “spoofs,” legitimate Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) signals in order to manipulate positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) data.[XVII] In general, an actor conducts spoofing by relaying false positioning information to an adversary. Russia deliberately transmits the same signals on frequencies used by GNSS in an effort to prevent receivers from locking-on to the authentic GNSS signals. Once Russia’s own signal is locked-on instead of the real GNSS signal, it begins to feed the receiver false PNT information. This is critical to U.S. operations, since spoofing can affect naval navigation, as well as PGM routing.
Russian Uses for EW
Today, Russian EW has become a developed, mature technology that continues to advance. For Russia, EW is used to simultaneously assist the country’s forces in seeing its adversary while also blinding the enemy so they can no longer target Russian Armed Forces.[XVIII] Most importantly, when used to support military operations, Russian EW systems limit the degree to which US and allied airpower and PGMs can be brought to bear before they are jammed. Fitting perfectly into Russian military doctrine and its preference for blurring the lines between war and peace, EW allows Russia to engage in “non-contact operations” that jam, blind, disrupt, and demoralize an enemy without having to fire a single shot.[XIX] While the Kremlin has long been experimenting in the realm of EW, the U.S. has only just re-entered the game.
A Changing World for U.S. Expeditionary Warfare
“…The most aggressive EW environment on the planet…”[XX]
Today, EW has become integral to Russia’s approach to warfare in the modern era, where it has gained extensive experience in Ukraine and Syria. Roger McDermott, an expert on the Russian military, stated “One of the reasons the Russian armed forces…are booming with confidence at this point is because they’re gaining such operational experience.”[XXI] In eastern Ukraine, Russia used unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs; otherwise known as “drones”) and ground systems to jam Ukrainian satellite, cellular, and radio communications.[XXII] Furthermore, Russian EW units also worked intimately with drones and rocket artillery batteries in a highly coordinated fashion. While jamming Ukrainian communications, Russia’s own drones would triangulate the sources of electronic emissions to find targets. Once targets were located and confirmed, an overwhelming artillery barrage would be called in.[XXIII] In stark contrast, the U.S. has faced limited EW threats, mostly engaging in jamming efforts on enemy improvised explosive devices (IEDs) while in Afghanistan and Iraq.[XXIV] In fact, the U.S. only started engaging in offensive EW in the Middle East within the last few years, shutting down enemy radios so they cannot communicate or call in reinforcements.[XXV]
American troops first came into contact with high-end, Russian EW capabilities while in Syria, where they had to increasingly defend themselves against Russian jamming devices.[XXVI] The head of US Special Operations Command, General Raymond Thomas, called Syria “the most aggressive EW environment on the planet from our adversaries. They are testing us every day…”[XXVII] Russia has become so adept at employing EW that US forces must now reduce their electromagnetic footprint or risk enemies using this information to geolocate, jam, and then fire upon them. As told by Laurie Buckhour, a retired Army colonel, “All of a sudden your communications won’t work, or you can’t call for fire, or you can’t warn of incoming fires because your radars have been jammed and they can’t detect anything.”[XXVIII]
Looking to the Future
Considering the wide range of efforts undertaken by Russia to improve its own EW capabilities relative to its Western counterparts, the U.S. will need to work-perhaps for the first time-on regaining unchallenged dominance in a domain of operations. While Russia frequently asserts its supremacy in the field of EW, this time it might actually be true. Speaking on the topic of US electronic warfare missions, James Faist, the Pentagon’s Under Secretary for Defense Research and Engineering, stated “There are well defined areas that we’re behind our adversaries. We have to catch up…[EW] is an area that we’re behind our adversaries, we’re not moving fast…we’ve just lost so much capability.”[XXIX] The U.S. currently has too few EW assets, with many of them being old and outdated compared to Russia.[XXX] While the Navy is doing slightly better than the other services, possessing aircraft such as the EA-18G Growler electronic attack plane, the Army and Air Force have largely allowed their EW expertise atrophy. Indeed, the US Army has almost no EW capability, whereas Russia’s most powerful EW capabilities reside within its land forces.[XXXI]
As the U.S. looks to the future, some capabilities it may need to invest in include “penetrating” jammers, such as fifth-generation stealthy aircraft, that can stay out of range of Russian EW equipment and surface-to-air missiles. With smaller radar cross sections that make them difficult to detect, fifth-generation jets such as the F-35 will be harder to target and can better slip into adversary airspace in order to conduct EW and strike operations.[XXXII] However, no one aircraft will allow the U.S. to successfully compete against all aspects of Russia’s EW capabilities. As assessed by Roger McDermott, the Russian EW forces are well-equipped, well-coordinated, and well-integrated with other combat arms like air defense and artillery. Russian EW is found throughout every arm and branch of service, making it nearly impossible to avoid. Moreover, all of Russia’s combat arms are well-honed from years of electronic combat experience.[XXXIII] After a 25-year hiatus from near-peer competition, the U.S. is now entering a new age of warfare, and bridging the EW capability gap will be of utmost priority.
[I] United States. Cong. House. Committee on the Armed Services. Hearing on Readying the U.S. Military for Future Warfare. January 30, 2018. 115th Cong. 2nd sess. Washington, GPO, 2018 (statement of Jim Thomas, Principal and Co-Founder of the Telemus Group.), p. 50.
[II] Jonas Kjellen, 2018, “Russian Electronic Warfare: The Role of Electronic Warfare in the Russian Armed Forces,” FOI, September 2018, file:///Users/mcreery/Downloads/FOI-R–4625–SE.pdf, p. 13.
[III] Thomas Grove, 2019, “The New Iron Curtain: Russian Missile Defense Challenges U.S. Air Power,” The Wall Street Journal, January 2019. https://www.wsj.com/articles/russias-missile-defense-draws-a-new-iron-curtain-against-u-s-military-11548255438.
[IV] Col. Liam Collins, 2018, “Russia Gives Lessons in Electronic Warfare,” Association of the United States Army, July 2018, https://www.ausa.org/articles/russia-gives-lessons-electronic-warfare.
[VI] Collins, 2018, “Russia Gives Lessons”
[VIII] Timothy Thomas, 2016, Russian Military Strategy: Impacting 21st Century Reform and Geopolitics. Foreign Military Studies Office, p. 153.
[X] Kjellen, 2018, “Russian Electronic Warfare,” p. 30.
[XI] Thomas, 2016, Russian Military Strategy, p. 156.
[XII] Thomas, 2016, Russian Military Strategy, p. 157.
[XIV] Thomas, 2016, Russian Military Strategy, p. 159.
[XV] Ibid, p. 157.
[XVI] “Above Us Only Stars: Exposing GPS Spoofing in Russia and Syria.” C4ADS, 2019, https://static1.squarespace.com/static/566ef8b4d8af107232d5358a/t/5c99488beb39314c45e782da/1553549492554/Above+Us+Only+Stars.pdf.
[XVII] Ibid, p. 3.
[XVIII] Sydney J. Freedberg, Jr., 2018, “Electronic Warfare Trumps Cyber for Deterring Russia,” Breaking Defense, February 2018, https://breakingdefense.com/2018/02/electronic-warfare-trumps-cyber-for-deterring-russia/.
[XIX] Ibid; Robert C. Rasmussen, “Cutting Through the Fog: Reflexive Control and Russians STRATCOM in Ukraine,” Center for International Maritime Security, November 26, 2015, http://cimsec.org/cutting-fog-reflexive-control-russian-stratcom-ukraine/20156.
[XX] Paul McLeary, 2018, “Russia Winning Info & Electronic War in Syria, US & UK Generals Warn,” Breaking Defense, 2018, https://breakingdefense.com/2018/10/russia-winning-information-electronic-war-over-syria-us-uk-generals-warn/.
[XXI] Freedberg, 2018, “Electronic Warfare Trumps Cyber”
[XXII] Collins, 2018, “Russia Gives Lessons in Electronic Warfare.”
[XXIII] Freedberg, 2018, “Electronic Warfare Trumps Cyber”
[XXIV] Lara Seligman, 2018, “Russian Jamming Poses a Growing Threat to U.S. Troops in Syria,” Foreign Policy, July 2018, https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/07/30/russian-jamming-poses-a-growing-threat-to-u-s-troops-in-syria/.
[XXV] Sydney J. Freedberg, Jr., 2018, “HASC EW Expert Bacon: US ‘Not Prepared’ for Electronic Warfare vs. Russia, China,” January 2018, Breaking Defense, https://breakingdefense.com/2018/01/hasc-ew-expert-bacon-us-not-prepared-for-electronic-warfare-vs-russia-china/.
[XXVII] McLeary, 2018, “Russia Winning Info & Electronic War”
[XXIX] Jared Keller, 2019, “The Pentagon is Reportedly Getting Serious about Electronic Warfare,” Task & Purpose, June 2019, https://taskandpurpose.com/pentagon-russia-electronic-warfare.
[XXX] Freedberg, Jr., 2018, “HASC EW Expert”
[XXXI] Freedberg, Jr., 2018 “Electronic Warfare Trumps Cyber”
[XXXII] Loren Thompson, 2016, “The Evolution of Jet Fighters Takes a Giant Leap with ‘Fifth-Generation’ Planes,” Forbes, June 2016, https://www.forbes.com/sites/lorenthompson/2016/06/01/what-makes-a-jet-fighter-fifth-generation/#5a89f9b66655
[XXXIII] Freedberg, Jr., 2018, “Electronic Warfare Trumps Cyber”