Electronic Weapons: A Failure To Communicate

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March 28, 2022: Russian forces invading Ukraine are at a disadvantage for many reasons, including inadequate or absent military radios. While Western military radios have been using frequency hopping and software defined operation since the 1980s, Russian forces were several decades behind. Obsolete Russian military radios were a visible problem during the 2008 invasion of Georgia and the government ordered modern military radios be developed and issued to Russian troops as soon as possible. This didn’t begin to happen until 2017. By 2022 there were not enough of the new Azart radios available for all the Russian troops going into Ukraine. There were many units still using the old radios that the Americans, and most Western forces, replaced decades ago.

Azart was an effort to duplicate the U.S. Army SINCGARS series of radios introduced in the 1980s as a solution to jamming of radio transmissions on the battlefield, as well as the risk of the enemy understanding these messages. Russian jamming of tactical radios was a threat throughout the Cold War and SINCGARS was the first successful solution because it used effective frequency hopping (rapidly changing frequencies according to a pre-arranged pattern) when sending and receiving messages. The three radios in the SINCGARS family had a range of 8-35 kilometers. Unfortunately, these are FM (line of sight) radios that lose a lot of their range in hilly or urban terrain. Operators have also found that the range is halved when the frequency hopping was used. When a user finds the signal fading, they will switch to single frequency mode to keep the connection. This allows the enemy to jam the signal, and to listen in. The Russian military radios, especially the new ones, proved unreliable and often unavailable. In Afghanistan NATO forces could use satellite radios as well as FM tactical radios using airborne repeater aircraft.

Russia has none of this for its troops in Ukraine while Ukrainian forces had free access to the high-speed Starlink satellite communications system. This came about early in the war when a Ukrainian communications official asked American entrepreneur Elon Musk if he could supply Ukraine with access to the new Starlink system, which was about to begin worldwide activation after a very successful period of testing and use by journalists. Within a week Musk had trucked in the first truckloads of user kits (a small satellite dish and a “modem” to allow any PC user to connect. Musk repositioned two thousand Starlink satellites (out of 11,000 already up there) over Ukraine and turned them on days after the Ukrainian request. Since then, several thousand user kits have been sent in and Starlink engineers have detected and defeated Russian efforts to disrupt its operation. This neutralized Russian efforts to destroy Ukrainian access to the Internet. Starlink advised Ukrainian users how to use Starlink to avoid the Russians detecting a user and their location for an air or missile attack. During March Starlink added several new features, like the ability to be used in a moving vehicle, using power from a battery or the vehicle electrical system. This enabled Ukrainian forces to use Starlink in combat.

Azart proved less capable than expected under combat conditions because there were not enough of them and these radios were unable to remain in contact with higher headquarters. In combat Russian support forces are supposed to erect temporary repeater towers or employ vehicles carrying mobile towers so that Azart users on the front line could stay in touch with other units and the chain of command that went all the way back to the Stavka (Great Staff) in Moscow that controlled all military operations. The repeater towers did not work because armed Ukrainians found and destroyed them. Some Russian commanders still had their cell-phones as well as Ukrainian sim cards that enabled use on the Ukraine cell phone system, which the Ukrainians kept operational. Most Russian troops were ordered to leave their cell phones behind because the Ukrainians could track cell-phone users and in the case of Russian troops, use that information for an airstrike or ambush. Some veteran Russian officers and troops, especially those who had served in Syria obtained Chinese walkie-talkies similar to those often used by Islamic terrorists and irregular forces worldwide. In Syria the Russians eventually banned soldiers from using modern (4G) cellphones that could be used to post photos and videos to social media. In addition, some major bases in Syrian had jammers going 24/7 to prevent any use of 4G phones, especially by local Islamic terrorists who were constantly trying to kill Russians, often with the help of cell phones that could provide a target beacon for swarms of quad-copters armed with explosives. Many Russian troops and civilian contractors carried their 4G phones anyway and when outside the range of the jammers powered them up and sent accumulated emails and photos home and to social media.

The problems Russia had with cell phones in Syria were also taking place in eastern Ukraine (Donbas) where Russian forces invaded in 2014, a year before Russian troops showed up in Syria. The communications problems in Donbas were worse because the Ukrainians quickly mobilized and halted the effort to take two Ukrainian provinces. The Russian advance halted and has been stalled until 2022.

In Syria the Russians tried to exploit the enemy use of cell phones but found that more difficult than expected. At the same time Russian troops with cell phones became a major intelligence problem, and that continued in Russian occupied areas of Ukraine as well. For example, in late 2017 the Russian run “government” in eastern Ukraine (Donbas) sentenced a local man to ten years in jail for distributing a cell phone photo via twitter that showed Russian Army vehicles and other equipment in the rebel-controlled half of Donbas. Russia denies they have troops there but it has been an open secret because of cell phones, Internet access and most Ukrainians in Russian occupied Donbas want the Russians gone. Sending one man to prison and publicizing it is expected to make the population less ready to do this sort of thing. That didn’t work.

Russia used Ukraine as a test site for new Cyber War tactics and techniques. In late 2016 Ukraine accused Russia of employing hackers to insert trackers into cell phones used by Ukrainian military personnel fighting in Donbas. Ukraine has also found evidence of the same or similar hackers, usually civilian groups working as contractors for the Russian government, going after numerous government and commercial networks in Ukraine. Some of these hackers were also identified as going after targets in the United States. The hacking of cell phones used by military personnel is believed to be the cause of several accurate and fatal attacks on Ukrainian troops in Donbas. The hackers made it possible to track the location of the phone owners and accurately fire shells or rockets at them.

These capabilities had already attracted the attention of the U.S., which was supplying Ukraine with military equipment and technical assistance. American and NATO electronic warfare experts paid close attention to what the Russians were up to in Donbas and the cell phone hack was not unexpected. When it did arrive, it was scrutinized and dissected. That led to countermeasures that were ignored by the Russians and used by Ukrainian forces fighting the 2022 invasion.

The poor communications capability has degraded Russian combat capabilities and made Russian troops much more vulnerable. For example, the Russians have to be careful using air strikes or artillery fire near their own troops because there is no way for ground forces to communicate with aircraft or distant units providing the shell, rocket or ballistic missile fire to report they or the target had moved. This is one of the reasons for the Russians shifting most of their artillery fire to cities, because these targets don’t move, like the Ukrainian soldiers and irregulars do. At the same time the Ukrainian forces have reliable, and often encrypted, communications. This was because the Ukrainians kept their cell phone system operational by quietly making changes to it that made it more difficult for Russian hackers or military forces to shut the system down. Where there was cell service Ukrainians could use encrypted apps to communicate while Russian forces used their Azart or pre-Azart military radios or Chinese walkie-talkies, where communication is in the clear. Nearly all Ukrainians can speak Russian as well as Ukrainian and have methods or equipment to detect and locate Russian troops communicating without encryption. Azart has modern encryption but using it reduces the range of the radios by up to 50 percent. Because of that Russian troops rarely use the encryption. The Ukrainians know all about Azart because soon after Russian troops began receiving them in 2017, many also showed up on the black market, where anyone could buy one. The Ukrainians did so and, along with NATO, discovered what Azar could do and what its weaknesses were. Ukrainian and NATO tech experts concluded that, with proper countermeasures, the Azart radios would become a major liability for Russian commanders and it was. Some Russian troops got Ukrainian sim cards for their cell phones so they could call home and the Ukrainians exploited this by harvesting those messages and postings to social media to monitor Russian morale, operations and sometimes use location information for attacks.

The Ukrainians had other communication options. Much of the land-line phone lines were kept operational even though these lines were more difficult to defend. Another separate communications system was operated by the Ukrainian railway system. Each of the nearly 1,600 railway stations and facilities was connected by a land-line system that runs adjacent to the tracks. This is used by railway staff to control traffic and report any problems. Railway staff also have their encrypted apps and this played a major role in keeping the railways operational and able to carry personnel (military and civilian) as well as cargo.

Russian commanders, unable to communicate, must stay on the roads and are often stalled because they have not received new orders or cannot report that they are under attack or that a unit has suffered heavy losses and requires assistance, especially evacuation of the wounded. Local civilians are no help because they move away when Russian troops are near but are very helpful to any Ukrainian forces who ask for information. This is one reason Russian troops were told, after about ten days, to loot at will to obtain supplies. This enraged Ukrainian civilians even more and since the Ukrainians had their cellphones images of the Russian troops looting and abusing civilians quickly spread worldwide, including to Russia, where civilians had been told that Ukrainians welcomed their Russian liberators.

 


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