The Russian Army’s use of electronic warfare during the first phase of the Ukraine War appeared underwhelming
Early on 24 February the Russian Armed forces began their invasion of Ukraine, making what was almost certainly the largest movement of troops in anger seen in Europe since World War 2.
Open-source analyses stated that the order of battle included twelve Combined Arms Armies (CAA), Army Corps, and Guards Tank Armies – all corps-level formations – supported by at least 20 tactical formations including motorised rifle divisions and brigades, and tank divisions.
Electronic Warfare (EW) is as intrinsic to the Russian Army’s manoeuvre force as much as artillery, infantry, and armour. Russian Army doctrine recommends that, of an enemy’s forces, if you ‘attrit one third, jam one third, the remaining third will fall’.
EW’s importance is reflected in the deployment of specialist EW units throughout the army’s manoeuvre force, and each of Russia’s military districts (Western, Southern, Central, and Eastern) has an organic independent EW brigade which is tasked with waging electronic warfare at the operational level. Each of the army’s tank/motorised infantry brigades/divisions has an organic EW company, and these perform tactical EW to support the manoeuvre force.
The electronic warfare systems deployed with the army’s EW brigades and companies have similar targets. High Frequency (3MHz to 30MHz) communications are targeted by the brigades’ Murmansk-BN Communications Intelligence (COMINT) and Communications Jamming (COMJAM) system, while cellphone and V/UHF communications are targeted by the brigade’s RB-341V Leer-3 system which utilises Orlan-10 UAS for this mission.
Airborne radars transmitting on 1GHz to 18GHz wavebands are engaged with 1L269 Krasukha-2 and 1RL257 Krasukha-4 EW systems, while the EW brigades also use a single 1L267 Moskva-1 passive radar. This detects, locates, and tracks hostile aircraft via their radar and radio communications/navigation signals. EW brigade Command and Control (C2) is provided by a single RB-109A headquarters post.
Different systems are deployed by the EW companies, although they engage similar targets. Company C2 is provided by two RP-330KPK/K truck-mounted systems, while HF communications are targeted by two R-325UMV and two R-378B COMINT/COMJAM apparatus. VHF COMINT/COMJAM is performed using two R-330B and a single R-330Zh systems, the latter of which also engages UHF GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System) signals.
Airborne VHF communications are targeted by two R-934B systems, while backpack/vehicular RP-377U/UB jammers engage V/UHF emitters. Twenty-one RP-377U/UBs usually equip an EW company, and are thought to be tasked with jamming Radio Frequency (RF)-activated improvised explosive devices. RF-fused weapons, principally air-to-ground and surface-to-surface ordnance, are engaged by the EW company’s two SPR-2/RTUT-B systems. Although most of these systems are vehicle-mounted, it is not believed they can be used while mobile. The exception to this rule is the RP-377U/UV.
An EW company deploys to provide a ‘bubble’ of COMINT/COMJAM above the manoeuvre force’s tactical elements, and Russian sources say an EW company will typically cover a 2,500km2 area. The company’s closest EW assets are typically deployed a maximum of 3km from the tactical edge. In contrast, independent EW brigades are thought to cover a surface area of 5,442km2.
Russian Army EW units are tasked with engaging an array of targets beyond those discussed above. These can include weapons locating radars to aid Russian Army artillery. The force also targets Satellite Communications (SATCOM) using V/UHF, L-band (1.3GHz to 1.7GHz) and S-band (2.2GHz to 2.4GHz). Systems like the 1RL257 Krasukha-4 may have some capability against X-band (7.9GHz to 8.4GHz), Ku-band (10.9GHz to 14GHz), and Ka-band (18GHz to 40GHz) SATCOM frequencies. Other targets for Russian Army EW cadres include UAV RF links which tend to inhabit wavebands of 2.4GHz and 5.8GHz.
Open sources suggest that the Russian Army’s order-of-battle in the Ukraine theatre of operations includes all four of its EW brigades. These are joined by the 15th Independent EW Brigade which constitutes the EW force’s headquarters element, and is directly subordinate to the Russian General Staff.
Getting definitive, unbiased, and accurate information from the theatre of operations on the Russian Army’s EW performance during the first stage of the war up to 6 April is difficult at best. That said, some broad conclusions can be drawn based on sources in theatre and from the open-source intelligence (OSINT) world.
EW appears to have been used by the Russian Army from the outset. On the night of the invasion, some disruption to cellular networks was reported on social media in the eastern Donbass and southern Crimea regions, while internet connectivity was also affected. Whether this was the work of Russia’s Internet Research Agency cyberwarfare unit or Russian Army EW units cannot be verified, and attacks on cellphone networks could have been performed by RB-314V Leer-3 systems embed with army EW brigades. That same day, social media posts reported that civilian HF radio in and around Ukraine appeared to experience jamming.
It is interesting that HF jamming seemingly subsided relatively quickly. By 28 February, HF radio amateurs were not only communicating, but they were also listening to unencrypted Russian HF military traffic, and one intriguing aspect of the conflict is the apparent lack of Russian HF radio discipline.
The Russian Army routinely uses HF networks for headquarters-to-headquarters trunk communications, and actually appears to prefer HF rather than SATCOM. This may be because of low confidence in the quality of Russian Army SATCOM systems and networks, and because HF communications are comparatively difficult to jam. Radio hams have been able to listen to uncoded Russian military HF communications and, while at first some suspected this was a deliberate Russian attempt to plant disinformation on these networks, the traffic contents did appear to correlate with events unfolding on the ground.
Why the Russians transmitted uncoded on HF is unknown, but it is possible that the force has insufficient numbers of secure HF radios or encryption devices to use with these radios to go around, thus forcing the army to rely on unsecured HF radios as the default option.
It is also possible that HF jamming by systems like the Murmansk-BN, R-325UMV, and R-378B may have affected its own HF networks, meaning the army refrained from widescale HF jamming to avoid electromagnetic fratricide. The trade-off of course is that the Ukrainians can exploit this traffic for intelligence, and the Russian Army has even suffered HF jamming by radio amateurs who have blasted channels with spurious traffic like K-Pop music.
The HF EW situation seems mirrored in the V/UHF domain. Terabits of video and pictures of the war collected by Ukrainian phones so far shows much of the cellphone infrastructure appears unjammed and, that this traffic can be shared on social media seemingly illustrates Russia’s inability to shut down Ukraine’s internet.
It’s interesting to speculate why the cellphone networks have seemingly been left largely unscathed, but there is speculation that the Russian Army is reliant on Ukrainian cellphone networks for tactical communications. Indeed, social media has been awash with photographs of captured civilian V/UHF radios used by Russian troops.
This is despite Russia having embarked upon a much-vaunted overhaul of its tactical communications in the years leading up to the war. Some units got new transceivers like the R-187 Azart handheld HF and V/UHF radio, and these are used by squad/platoon commanders and form part of the army’s Ratnik infantry soldier modernisation kit.
But it appears deliveries of these radios have been patchy and, while elite units like Russia’s VDV airborne forces and army Guards units have received the radios, most of the army has not, and it is thought to rely on legacy radios. Some of the R-187s have reportedly been sold on the Russian black market.
There are also persistent reports from sources familiar with the new radios that they are underperforming, and the problem for the Russian Army is that its legacy and new radios do not appear to share common waveforms thus they cannot communicate with each other.
To compound matters, Russia’s encrypted ERA cellphone system is not thought to be working well in Ukraine. This, coupled with the radio shortcomings, may be forcing Russian troops to use standard civilian cellphones to guarantee communications, and may explain why Russian jamming against the cellphone infrastructure appears sporadic.
But this hands Ukrainian forces an advantage, as cellphone emissions from Russian troops can be tracked and their position pinpointed. This is also the case for Russian Army HF traffic which is used to connect deployed headquarters, and may explain why the Ukrainian Army has reportedly been successful in finding and killing several senior Russian Army commanders.
SATCOM & GNSS
Russian disruption of SATCOM appears to be similarly sporadic as nightly news bulletins from correspondents in theatre to media organisations around the world attest.
Indeed, the Russian military seems to have taken a different tack as regards disrupting satellite communications and, rather than conventional jamming, Russian cyberwarriors have hacked SATCOM providers. It was reported that Viasat’s satellite-hosted internet was attacked by Russian cadres at the start of the invasion, with the attack aimed at Viasat’s ground infrastructure ostensibly to degrade the Ukrainian military’s use of the company’s networks.
These attacks continued into March, affecting targets beyond Ukraine, with German wind turbines connected using Viasat’s SATCOM services affected by the attack. It is interesting that SATCOM was targeted with a cyberattack, and no reports have reached the author of Russian Army systems successfully jamming SATCOM in Ukraine for any sustained periods of time.
Similarly conspicuous by its absence is large-scale GNSS signal jamming. Platforms like the R-330Z are specifically tasked with jamming GNSS transmissions, but GNSS jamming seems to be happening some distance from the theatre of operations. For example, in early April Global Positioning System (GPS) outages affecting civilian aviation were blamed on Russian GNSS jamming systems deployed in its Baltic Kaliningrad enclave.
But Ukraine has enjoyed success with its TB-2 Bayraktar UAS which use GNSS for navigation, indicating that Russian EW cadres may have had trouble jamming these signals. The UAS are likely to use the encrypted M-Code GPS signal which Russian EW systems have reportedly had no success jamming, and other weapons used by the Ukrainian armed forces employing encrypted GPS likewise also appear largely unaffected by Russian jamming.
At the time of writing in late April, the Russian government had implemented a major change in strategy, with Russian forces largely withdrawn from Kyiv and its environs and now concentrating on capturing Ukrainian territory in the south and east.
The first phase of the war is over and the Russian Army’s EW acumen has underwhelmed. Why is this? One cannot know for certain. The Russian Army may not have learned lessons from its 2014 invasion of Ukraine where Ukrainian forces were badly affected by Russian Army EW efforts then.
Painful lessons were learned, and today Russia today faces an adversary that has received NATO equipment and training relevant to the war in the spectrum. For example, the Ukrainian Army received US-supplied Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System transceivers which have proven largely immune to Russian jamming.
Underperforming Russian Army communications systems and interoperability issues may also limit the extent to which EW cadres can jam communications, and this seems particularly evident in the civilian domain. Fears of electromagnetic fratricide may be limiting the extent to which the Russian Army can jam GNSS signals lest its own GLONASS satellite navigation system be affected.
Has the Russian Army been deliberately husbanding its EW capabilities to unleash later in the conflict? Possibly. Nonetheless, if commanders are not going to use these capabilities en masse during the conflict’s most dangerous stage, namely the invasion, when are they going to use them? Are Russian EW systems performing as advertised or underperforming because of a lack of maintenance? Do commanders have confidence in the army’s EW capabilities to support manoeuvre? If not, are they simply downsizing or completely eliminating the role of EW to support their intent?
The Russian Army has seemingly failed to win electromagnetic superiority; a situation where Ukrainian forces can only sporadically contest the former’s control of the electromagnetic spectrum. Securing electromagnetic superiority would have helped the army win electromagnetic supremacy. This would have seen the Ukrainian Army unable to meaningfully challenge the Russian Army’s control of the spectrum. While not the sole reason for the Russian Army’s lack of performance in the war’s first phase, it must certainly be a factor.
Whether the Russian Army learns from its EW mistakes as the war enters a new, grim chapter remains to be seen.
This article appeared in the March-April 2022 issue of
Australian Defence Business Review