Analyzing the limits of Russian electronic warfare capabilities in Ukraine

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As the invasion of Ukraine approaches its fourth calendar month, the numerous strategic and logistical failures committed by the Russian armed forces during their troubled campaign have left many observers wondering about the effectiveness of their capabilities and military equipment. One area that has generated particular interest in Western defense circles has been the apparent lack of a concerted effort by the Russian military to target and disrupt the Ukrainian military’s C4ISR infrastructure in the same way as ‘it has done so in many other cases, such as during operations in Syria or during the secret invasion of the Ukrainian region of Donbass in 2014.

Indeed, Western defense officials have noted that despite detecting Russian use of EW for targeted and localized operations, “we have not seen […] the full extent of their electronic warfare capabilities brought to bear”. A deeper analysis of the rationale for this limited deployment of electronic warfare capabilities highlights several factors that limit the strategic potential of Russian activities in the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS) and poses a larger question as to the operational value of electronic warfare systems. high-intensity conflict electronic warfare.

To begin this assessment, it is essential to understand that the Russian military currently has one of the most diverse and technologically advanced military electronic warfare portfolios on the planet. The concept of radio electronic warfare (REB according to the Russian acronym) plays a key role in the Russian Ground Forces’ operations manual for high-intensity conflict, with several key systems designed to provide both flexible attack and layered defensive capability.

The Russian military has a long history of jamming or spoofing global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) like GPS, as well as other terrestrial positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) signals for many purposes. with the aim of obscuring troop movements and disrupting hostile C4ISR capabilities. This is achieved through several systems, such as the R-330ZH Zhitel manufactured by Protek and the Polye-21 family of jamming stations, both of which provide detection, analysis, direction finding and jamming of communication systems by satellite or cellular within ranges of 20-30km and 50km respectively.

These more basic systems are replaced by additional defensive capabilities, such as the 1RL257 Krasukha-2 and 1L260 Krasukha-4 systems mounted on KamAZ 8×8 trucks or the ship-mounted TK-25 series of electronic countermeasures, which are designed to target S-band, X-band, and Ku-band airborne radars used by Joint Western Surveillance Target Attack (JSTAR) radar systems, Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft, radar on the ground (GBR), satellites and orders guided by radar at distances between 150 and 300 km. These are primarily used to protect critical military infrastructure such as command posts and air defense installations, but can also be used to conceal large-scale maneuvers.

As for more offensive capabilities, the Russian military can deploy the RB-314V Leer-3, which combines a motorized EW system and an Orlan-10 UAS armed with an EW module to intercept, track and jam GSM- 900 and GSM-1800. mobile phone networks within a radius of 6 km. Theater-level electronic warfare capabilities are provided by the Murmansk-BN system, a network of mobile antenna masts and motorized vehicles said to provide HF signal jamming and electronic reconnaissance capabilities at ranges up to 5,000 km, although more credible assessments estimate its effective operational range to be between 1,000 and 2,000 km depending on ambient atmospheric conditions.

Yet despite the plethora of systems and capabilities at their disposal, their deployment or at least the perceived impact on Ukrainian battlefields remained relatively low-key throughout the first months of the conflict. Although US intelligence officials have acknowledged Russia’s use of localized electronic warfare capabilities, such as targeted radio and cellular jamming, the Ukrainian military‘s ability to continue targeting logistics convoys with Bayraktar TB UCAVs -2 and to retain effective command and control throughout the country suggests that the Russian armed forces were unwilling or unable to use their EW assets effectively in the field. Several factors impacted the use of the EW in this conflict, the first of which was the failure of the Russian military to orchestrate effective combined operations.

Strategists noted how the pre-emptive use of radar and communications suppression to support ground maneuvers is rendered ineffective if the maneuver force is unable to achieve its objectives due to the various strategic and logistical failures that have hampered the Russian battlegroups since the start of the invasion. This has been exemplified by failed attempts to encircle key urban settlements in northern Ukraine, such as Kyiv or Kharkiv, where limited access to fuel, ammunition and supplies, coupled with difficult terrain, has blocked the advances of Russian armored columns on several key axes of advance, thus rendering large-scale electronic (EA) attacks against these settlements useless.

As a result of this failure to conduct cross-domain operations, another detrimental pressure emerged to further hamper Russian electronic warfare capabilities, namely the lack of a consistent forward line to facilitate asset identification and targeting. enemies for the EA. The inhomogeneous nature of the Russian and Ukrainian front lines makes it difficult to disrupt hostile sensor and communication networks without also affecting allied forces operating nearby. When Russian forces instead attempted to rely on kinetic effectors by destroying cellular 3G masts in the Kharkiv region, they appeared to have inadvertently rendered their Era military cryptophone network ineffective, as the technology relied on 3G/4G to work.

Additionally, although Russian forces have targeted Ukrainian internet infrastructure with both cyber and kinetic capabilities, theories have emerged that the Russians were reluctant to completely disrupt services, as their forces now also rely on said infrastructure to operate in the country.

These challenges are only compounded by the fact that the Ukrainian armed forces have relied heavily on irregular warfare operations to counter the numerical and technological advantage of the Russian military, fighting in dispersed and highly mobile formations to conduct lightning attacks and outmaneuvering the slower armored elements on which the Russians rely heavily.

In addition, sympathetic nations in NATO and elsewhere have contributed to this flexibility by supplying the Ukrainian forces with a wide range of radios and communication systems, while the units of the Territorial Defense Forces (TDF) which still depend cell phones are difficult to identify among the countless civilian cellular broadcasts emanating from the urban population centers where TDFs are typically stationed. This makes effective target identification in the electromagnetic spectrum particularly difficult, and although the Russian military has certainly attempted to exploit its electronic warfare capabilities, as evidenced by the capture of a Krasukha-4 command module at the outskirts of Kyiv in mid-March, these assets have so far not reached their full potential due to practical limitations on the ground.

Having identified the many operational limitations and detrimental factors affecting the Russian military’s EW prowess, it becomes relevant to ask whether EW capabilities pose such a serious threat, especially in the context of high-level conflict. intensity between state actors such as the one in Ukraine. The key takeaway from this analysis is that although the most powerful Russian electronic warfare systems were designed to counter NATO’s conventional military capabilities and platforms such as early warning aircraft, radars and satellites, these systems are much less effective in destabilizing a dispersed fighting force employing irregular warfare. tactics that depend much less on advanced capabilities or systems.

Analysts have long predicted that the majority of future conflicts will take place in highly urbanized and digitized environments, ensuring that despite providing electronic warfare assets with a target-rich environment, precision targeting will still be impeded where hostile forces may rely on civilian infrastructure to disguise themselves. their signatures. This challenge can be circumvented by relying on less discriminating electronic warfare systems that target a wider range of emissions and signals.

However, this can prove to be a double-edged sword if these abilities also disrupt allied C4ISR networks operating in the targeted area. Although the recent reorientation of Russian command towards securing eastern Ukraine may allow for more effective use of electronic warfare systems due to the relative rigidity of front lines in this region, the practical limitations that this conflict highlighted will undoubtedly provide critical lessons for analysts around the world regarding the effectiveness of the use of EW assets in the context of multi-domain operations and the strategic limitations they face in disrupting a fighting force. scattered and irregular.

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