Information Warfare: The Syrian Ban


April 2, 2018: By July 1st all bases where Russian forces operate in Syria, including major ones like Hmeimim airbase and the naval facilities at the port of Tartus, must begin to jam signals used by cellphones capable of handling 2G and 3G speeds. All Russia personnel have been ordered to only use older cell phones without cameras and GPS. Hmeimim was ordered to impose permanent jamming by March 30th. These orders were issued in mid-February after several ISIL attacks using fixed wing and quad copter UAVs. These mass attacks were made possible by using the features and capabilities of modern cell phones. This ban also solves another problem that has long caused headaches for Russian propagandists as well as military commanders. As a bonus this ban makes it much more difficult for Russian personnel to post military information on the Internet. This ban will only show down the battlefield information leaks because the Russian soldiers and civilian contractors will still have their smart phones for taking pictures and writing email to the folks back home. Whenever they get into a jamming free zone they can send that stuff or post it to social media sites (where more of these “leaks” tend to appear.) But jamming will make improvised mass attacks by cheap commercial UAVs (carrying explosives) less common and more difficult to carry out. Several such attacks occurred between the end of 2017 and February, causing two deaths and a lot of property and equipment damage.

What happened in Syria was unusual because it is usually the Russians who are exploiting cell phone technology on the battlefield although the information leaks because of Russian troops with cell phones has long been a problem, but not as serious as enabling aerial attacks on major bases.

The cell phones have become a major intelligence problem in Russian occupied areas of Ukraine as well. For example in late 2017 the Russian backed rebel 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 there want the Russians gone. Sending this guy to prison and publicizing it is expected to make the population less ready to do this sort of thing.

While the Russians have been in Donbas since 2014, since mid-2015 Ukraine has become a secondary operation for Russia with Syria, the rest of the Middle East plus North Korea demanding more attention. This has made it easier for Ukrainians to document the presence of Russian troops inside Donbas. This is possible because Donbas has cell phone service a lot of people in Donbas take pictures and share them. Although the Russian soldiers in Donbas are supposed to remove all identifying items from their uniforms, not all the troops do that completely. The Russian troops are not supposed to spend too much time socializing with the locals but they do and often share those experiences on Internet based social networks. Russia denies everything and since Russia has state controlled mass media most Russians see the official version of who is in Donbas, not the reality. The Russian veto in the UN limits international blowback because of Donbas and the fact that Russia has ignored nearly all the things it agreed to in several recent Donbas ceasefire agreements.

While Russia decreased military support for their forces in Donbas Russia continued using Ukraine as a test site for new Cyber War tactics and techniques. Thus by the end of 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 military personnel cell phones is believed to be the cause of several recent 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 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.


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