Russia’s Electronic Warfare Capability ‘Exposed’ In Ukraine War; Is Putin’s Techno-Savvy Army Losing The EW Battle?

The media coverage of the ongoing war in Ukraine is largely focused on the use of missiles, artillery aircraft and armored vehicles, etc but there is an invisible war going on between the two sides for the control of the electromagnetic spectrum.

For lack of visual or emotional impact of the explosions caused by rockets or destruction caused by machine guns and rifles bullets, electronic warfare (EW) has not received much attention from the mainstream media, however, there has been a lot of discussion among experts about how the war in electromagnetic spectrum domain (ESD) has been progressing in Ukraine.

Russia considered a world leader in advanced electronic warfare capability and tactics has thus far not brought to bear its full might in the ESD which has left many experts baffled.

“The seeming lack of EW front line systems is puzzling to those of us who tracked Russian EW” tactics and concepts, said Samuel Bendett, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNA).

Military radar screen is scanning air traffic. 3D rendered illustration. - 86947020
A military radar screen is scanning air traffic. 3D rendered illustration by vchalup (123RF)

The Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, General Valeri Gerasimov, has ordered the Russian combat units to be supported by specialized EW Battalions and Brigades in the Ukraine conflict with their missions including jamming, neutralizing and blocking the enemy’s communications and navigation and positioning systems.

Russian EW systems fielded in Ukraine include the RB-341В “Leer-3” supported by Orlan-10 drones, the most advanced RB-301B “Borisoglebsk-2” electronic suppression system, and the RB-636 “Svet-KU” and the RB-109A “Bylina” and Tirada-2.

The RB-341В “Leer-3” in conjunction with the Orlan-10 drones are aimed at intercepting satellite navigation signals, 3G, 4G communications, and text messages, while the RB-301B “Borisoglebsk-2” is for blocking Ukrainian military ground and airborne High Frequency (HF) and Ultra High Frequency (UHF) radio channels, and the RB-636 “Svet-KU”, whose role is to locate and intercept radio signals.

While the RB-109A “Bylina” and Tirada-2 are used to degrade and jam communications satellite transmissions.

There is also the R-934B “Sinitsa” jamming station, capable of disrupting and if need be, even damaging the communications and guidance systems of satellites in low-Earth orbit (LEO).

In addition to that, there are the 1RL257 “Krasukha-C4” and the R-330Zh “Zhitel” automatic jamming stations for reconnaissance and electronic attack (EA) aimed at jamming the long distances radar signals of the US Air Force’s AWACS E-3 Sentry and AEW E-2 Hawkeye airborne warning and control aircraft, which are trying to locate Russian fighters in flight.

US Air Force AWACS E-3 Sentry (USAF)

Despite the deployment of such an extensive array of Russian EW systems the Ukrainians still appear to have good command and control (C2) over their forces in the field.

One of the possible reasons that experts suggest is the Ukrainian forces may be dispersing some of their command structures to limit the impacts of Russian EW.

Jamming Electronic Signals

“On the Ukrainian side they can mitigate some of the challenges of Russian cyber and jamming because they are conducting command and control in a decentralized way,” retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, former commander of the U.S. Army in Europe told The National Interest in an interview.

Electronic warfare involves jamming electronic signals from radar systems, radio frequencies, or guided weapons to blind or disrupt enemy operations, and decentralizing these assets can help ensure connectivity without relying on a single C2 structure that could be targeted more easily.

Electronic Warfare CA | Lockheed Martin
Image for Representation: Electronic Warfare CA | Lockheed Martin

Hodges suggested that the Russians may not have the experience to target and attack decentralized operations, which would be more difficult to locate whereas a centralized C2 structure would emit a substantial electronic signal and be more easily detectable to Russian EW sensors.

While, Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute has noted that emissions from Ukrainian forces using normal cell phones are also being caught up in other civilian emissions, making it harder for Russian forces to find Ukrainians in the forest of electromagnetic spectrum emissions.

While Russian troops also have been reportedly using cell phones and even stealing SIM cards which means the Russians are probably reliant on the local Ukrainian communication infrastructure suggesting a lack of their own resilient or redundant communications.

Therefore, another possible explanation is that Russians are not using jammers to not disrupt their battlefield communications because even if jamming can be effective at blocking enemy communications, it can also interfere with friendly communications if not done properly indicating that Russian forces lack proper tactics for warfare in EMS domain that needs good electromagnetic management.

Problem Of Interoperability

This has been observed not just for communication networks but also in the case of satellite navigation signals where the Russian Armed Forces have experienced “electronic fratricide” because of their jamming actions.

Maj Gen B. Kremenetskyi, the Defense Attache with the Ukrainian Embassy in the U.S. had noted the problem of interoperability with the Russian armed forces who would jam Ukrainian frequencies, but then would end up jamming their systems using the same frequencies, for example, Russian UAVs that use satellite signals transmitted by the country’s GLONASS [global positioning] system.

GLONASS uses a waveband of 1.589 GHz [gigahertz] to 1.6 GHz which comes under the Very/Ultra High Frequency (V/UHF: 30MHz to three gigahertz) range so if the Russian forces target Ukrainian UHF transmissions they could sometimes end up jamming their UAV GNSS [global navigation satellite system] signals.

There are also reports of Ukrainians using a Soviet-era, TA-57 hard-wire field telephone as a backup for worst-case scenarios which is an analog, landline telephone about the size of a shoebox.

It has wire spools several hundred meters in length and to make a call, one user hand-cranks a dynamo, which alerts the user on the other end of the line to an incoming call. The two operators then talk normally while their respective devices operate on battery power.

electronic warfare
A Soviet-era TA-57 field telephone (Wikimedia Commons)

Introduced into the Soviet military in 1957, the TA-57 is cumbersome and outdated but also pretty much impregnable to modern Russian EW systems therefore this Soviet-era piece of the kit remains in active service within Ukraine’s armed forces.

“The armed forces of Ukraine did not stop using analog, primitive means of communication,” Andriy Mikheychenko, an active-duty first lieutenant in Ukraine’s army told Coffee or Die before the Russian invasion.

The Invisible Domain

Also, throughout the ongoing conflict, there have been numerous reports of Russian military convoys having stalled due to lack of fuel and other logistical issues and therefore experts have also blamed the logistical failures for keeping the Russian military from employing the full scope of their EW capabilities.

For example, Laurie Buckhout, a retired Army colonel who specializes in EW, told Breaking Defense that Russia’s airborne EW system, like a helicopter with an EW payload, is only valuable if there is a capable ground attack but if the armor is bogged down in mud or soldiers are surrendering or giving up their vehicles because they’re out of fuel there is no use putting up a helicopter for support.

“Why to put your asset [Helicopter] up there for it to be taken down if there’s not an operation worthy of it happening on the ground?” said Buckhout.

It is also important to remember that it is not possible to determine for sure the use and effectiveness of EW capabilities amidst the fog of ongoing war, as Electromagnetic Spectrum is an invisible domain.

Cranny-Evans, a C4ISR research analyst at the London-based Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) noted that just because it is not being observed, in part because “good EW” is very targeted, does not mean it is not happening.

“So I’m very reticent to say that we haven’t seen it because it’s not observed. And B, the Ukrainians will be the last to admit that they’re having problems communicating,” said Cranny-Evans.