Electronic Weapons: Russia Takes A Victory Lap

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November 3, 2019: Russia has been going public about its progress in EW (Electronic Warfare) over the last five years. Articles have appeared in Russian professional journals with discussions about the wide range of new EW gear Russia has recently used in combat zones. Nearly all the examples given are from Russian experience in Syria, with similar experience in Ukraine played down because, technically, Russia is not involved in five years of fighting in eastern Ukraine (Donbas). The Russian articles actually reveal fewer details than many Western accounts. The United States, Israel and several other NATO nations have had EW experts in Syria and Ukraine. Also not mentioned in Russian media is the fact that many of the “new” Russian EW developments are basically Cold War era projects that had been stalled since the early 1990s because of cash shortages and enormous reductions in military manpower. The Russian military, after 1991, lost 80 percent of its personnel and nearly as much of its defense budget. Some of the Russian writers did mention the sorry state of Russian EW during the brief war with tiny Georgia in 2008, and what a shock that was. Georgia inherited a lot of modern Russian military equipment after it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and the Russians were dismayed at how effectively the Georgians used those weapons against them. It was noted that ten years later in Syria Russian EW efforts were much more effective. Not just because of the new (completed Cold War) equipment, but also because the Russian military expanded the number of personnel assigned to EW units and that apparently included bringing back military and civilian EW experts who lost their jobs in the 1990s.

The revival of Russian EW capabilities was impressive and it was largely because Russia had, since 2015 been using eastern Ukraine and Syria for testing new EW equipment. New gear, as well as Cold War era systems, were tested “under combat conditions” to discover weaknesses and promote export sales as “combat-proven” gear. Equipment still in development, usually revived late Cold War era projects, was also tested. Many items showed up in Ukraine first, something Russian authors don’t mention. One example of that was the truck-mounted Tirada-2 orbital jamming system that showed up in eastern Ukraine during 2018. Tirada-2 was seeking to hack the control signals and video feeds from American RQ-4B Global Hawk UAVs that regularly operated over eastern Ukraine. This would provide a look at what these UAVs see when they monitor Russian activity. Some RQ-4Bs are equipped with “space satellite quality” electronic sensors and the Russians were hoping to get an opportunity to monitor and perhaps hack into and monitor or control them. Ukrainian and Western intelligence was aware of the existence of Tirada-2 if only because a less capable export model was being offered for sale. But then the more capable non-export Tirada-2 showed up in Donbas but, as one would expect, no one provided any details of who has been able to do what to whom.

Russia quietly worked on ways to not only hack satellite control and data signals but to easily eavesdrop and monitor them. Encrypted signals can be decrypted and if you can do that you do not talk about it. Now Russian satellite signal monitoring and hacking equipment are coming out of the development shadows and practicing on American equipment. This was particularly the case with American GPS satellites.

Since 2016 there has been growing evidence that Russia has been frequently jamming or spoofing (misdirecting) GPS signals, mainly to hide the exact location of key people or military units. In early 2019 a report was released describing nearly 10,000 instances in which someone, apparently Russia, had been jamming or spoofing satellite navigation signals. Not just the American GPS, but also signals from non-American satellite navigation systems (Chinese Beidou, EU’s Galileo, Japan’s QZAA and even the Russian GLONASS). Much of this activity was not outright jamming but spoofing. Much of this was done to conceal the true location of key Russian officials and Russian military units. The spoofing was particularly common for Russian military forces in Ukraine and Syria. The spoofing replaced the actual satellite signal with a false one that rendered smart bombs or planned attacks on targets inaccurate. Spoofing has become more popular and practical because it does not require expensive or high-tech equipment.

While American weapons and military navigation systems have backup (and unjammable) INS (Internal Navigation System) systems, these are useless if the spoofing is not detected. American systems are supposed to detect spoofing and revert to INS but the Americans do not disclose details of how these systems work in order to make it difficult for spoofing systems to be modified to be less detectable. That is one reason why the U.S. has not released information on spoofing incidents.

Other nations are not as secretive in complaining and accusing Russia. In late 2018 Finland and Norway went public with their accusations that Russia deliberately jammed GPS signals in northern Finland and Norway from a location near the Russian military bases in the Kola Peninsula on the Barents Sea. Russia denied any responsibility even though they are known to possess long-range jammers for GPS and other signals. Norway said they had tracked the jammer to a specific location but when Russia refused to admit any involvement, Norway refused to explain how they tracked the signal because that would provide Russia with information on Norwegian EW equipment that might be useful to them.

What was curious about this incident was that it had no impact on the NATO military exercises, and even commercial airliners operating in the area had backup (INS) systems in case GPS signals were not working properly. The potential victims were civilians with smaller aircraft or on the ground who depend on commercial navigation gear using GPS. Then again, that may have been the point because Russian firms have long been producing a wide variety of GPS jammers that are generally ineffective against military GPS users but would be useful for criminals, terrorists or anyone involved in irregular warfare (as Russia has been in Ukraine since 2014). As for the damage to diplomatic relations with Norway and Finland, these two nations need no reminders of what a bad neighbor Russia is and historically has been. The Russian spoofing incidents were apparently common practice whenever Russian president Putin traveled, probably as a security measure to render assassination attempts using UAVs armed with explosives more difficult. Improvised bombs on small UAVs have become a common tactic with Islamic terrorists, who consider Putin a prime target for UAV attacks.

Russia has been more public about other forms of jamming. Russia revealed details of the performance of its new Silok UAV jammers in Syria, and elsewhere. Over the last two years, Islamic terrorists have carried out attacks using multiple small, explosives-equipped UAVs to attack the Russian controlled Hmeimim (or “Khmeimim”) airbase in Syria. These attacks have failed because Russian air defense systems shot down or forced down over fifty of the small UAVs that approached the base in several attacks. Those forced down were because of Silok, which did not show up until early 2018. Silok was based on several earlier UAV jamming systems. Silok is apparently optimized to detect, locate and, when possible, jam control signals being received by the UAV and data being transmitted back to the operator.

The Hmeimim airbase was built by Russia in 2015 near the port city of Latakia, which is 85 kilometers north of Tartus and 50 kilometers from the Turkish border. Russia brought in Pantsir-S1, Tor-M2U and S-400 air-defense systems to protect it from attack. Islamic terrorists based near the Turkish border obtained commercial fixed-wing UAVs and equipped them with explosives for attacks on Russian bases. One early attack was partially successful and damaged several aircraft on the ground. This prompted Russia to deploy its ELINT (electronic intelligence) collecting devices and EW jammers to defend these bases and to find out the UAV controllers location. These were hit with artillery and airstrikes once the UAVs were detected and dealt with. This also encouraged the Russians to speed the development of new jammers, particularly those effective against UAVs. The Russian airbase in Syria would not be the only target Islamic terrorists go after and here was a chance to market a “combat proven” UAV jammer.

Much has been learned, or at least made public, about Russian jamming equipment in the last few years. Many of the Russian jamming systems were seen deployed in Russia (especially Moscow) for the World Cup games in early 2018. As more became known about the capabilities of Russian EW gear for jamming UAV communications, it seemed to explain how Iran had forced down an American RQ-170 UAV in 2011. Some of the earlier Russian jammers were in Iran at that time, apparently for testing and the downing of the RQ-170 made it clear to the Russians that they were moving in the right direction. The Russian involvement in the 2011 incident was kept quiet but that became less of a secret after 2014 when Russian again deployed its ELINT and jammers in Ukraine and then Syria.

One of the many reasons NATO believes the Russians are actively involved in the fighting in eastern Ukraine (Donbas) is the presence of Russian electronic warfare equipment. Not just Cold War era stuff (which Ukraine inherited some of when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991) but equipment NATO knows was developed in the 1990s or later. This Russian gear has greatly aided the rebels, who have neither captured any advanced Ukrainian electronic warfare equipment or possess the number of electronic warfare experts needed to operate the equipment needed to explain the amount of jamming and eavesdropping the rebels are being supported with. Thus the rebels can jam or eavesdrop on all manner of Ukrainian communications (cell phones, military communications and control equipment for UAVs and anything else operated remotely) and jam those communications as well. The Russian gear also jammed the older model Raven UAVs the United States gave the Ukrainians. The U.S. then sent the latest (digital with anti-jamming capability) Ravens and these did somewhat better.

The exposure to Russian jammers under combat conditions has enabled the U.S. and Israel to improve the “jamming resistance” of their military UAVs, guided weapons and other gear dependent on GPS. There have always been ways to cope with such jamming but those countermeasures are much more effective if you can observe the threat in action. In addition to jamming resistance, American drones are being supplied with more capable autonomous flight software that is also immune from jamming.

The recent Russian articles also boasted of the introducing of upgrade ELINT and EW aircraft like the Tu-214R and Il-20M1. Also mentioned were EW pods carried by the most modern fighter-bombers. The Russians also admitted that they would not afford a lot of these EW pods and compensated for that by modifying ground-based jammers to provide support for airstrikes within a hundred or so kilometers of the front line. This is a clever, and typically Russian, adaptation to shortages of expensive airborne gear. The Russian authors also repeated the old Soviet belief that EW would be a crucial weapon in the opening stages of war because the enemy would experience the effects of EW hardware they had never encountered before. The Russians did not discuss the fact that their extensive “combat testing” of EW gear in Ukraine and Syria had provided potential foes with lots of useful data on what the Russian EW gear could do and how it did it. In the last few years, the U.S. Department of Defense has obtained emergency increases in the defense budget to deal with the new Russian threat. That EW threat was not theoretical but very real because American, Ukrainian and Israeli force had observed it or been on the receiving end.

 


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