Electronic Weapons: Fortuitous Disclosure

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September 30, 2018: The Ukrainian Army, with the help of civilian volunteers, has developed a TV and FM radio jamming system that blocks Russian TV and FM radio being broadcast to Russian controlled portions of eastern Ukraine (Donbas) and Crimea. The Serpanok jamming system uses existing Ukrainian TV and FM transmitters and was so successful that the Russians stopped broadcasting their propaganda laden TV and radio material and that enabled Ukraine to replace it with normal programming. Russia prefers to quietly back away when they encounter a defeat in the EW (Electronic Warfare) department. There has been more of that in Ukraine where the Russians discovered that a lot of their Soviet era (pre-1991) EW specialists were Ukrainian and the 2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine triggered a patriotic response that had not expected. While the Russians quickly took Crimea they were, and still are, stalled in Donbas and that has become an increasingly expensive embarrassment. Donbas has also become a major problem for new Russian EW systems because a lot of their effectiveness depends on surprise. A lot of that surprise element is gone and that was often because the Ukrainians had organized military or volunteer civilian groups who had the skills to determine what the Russians were up to and sometimes develop countermeasures.

Back in 2014 Russia began threatening and invading its European neighbors (especially Ukraine and the Baltic States) and because of that NATO has learned a lot more about Russian post-Cold War EW capabilities. The fighting in Donbas led the Russians to use a lot of their most modern electronic warfare equipment. Not just Cold War era stuff (which Ukraine inherited a lot of after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991) but equipment NATO knows was developed in the 1990s or later but had not encountered until now. NATO now believes that Russia has developed effective and reliable encrypted battlefield radios that are proving very difficult for Western forces to decrypt or jam. As expected, Russian eavesdropping and jamming gear turned out to be very effective. This Russian equipment has greatly aided the Russian backed rebels, who did not capture any advanced Ukrainian EW equipment when they staged their uprising in 2014. It soon became obvious that the Russians had brought in electronic warfare experts and Russian EW gear and provided the rebels with jamming and eavesdropping gear superior to anything the Ukrainian military had. Thus the rebels could jam or eavesdrop on all manner of Ukrainian communications (cell phones, military communications and control equipment for UAVs and anything else operated remotely). By 2015 Ukrainian EW experts suspected that the Russians had not used all the capabilities of their new electronic gear.

In response to that Ukraine asked NATO to provide some EW support and, not surprisingly, there was little publicity about the result. The reason for that was NATO quickly realized they had an unexpected opportunity to monitor this new Russian EW equipment in a battlefield situation. This was a huge win because otherwise these nasty EW surprises would be used against NATO forces in any future clashes with Russia or other nations that had purchased the Russian gear. This surprise element is important when it comes to electronic gear in general, which is much more effective if the other side does not know much about how it works. This is nothing new. For example, the World War II strategic bombing campaign against Germany saw nearly all the modern electronic warfare techniques (and countermeasures) being developed and used for the first time. The Russians captured a lot of the German stuff and were impressed. Thus they never exported their best Cold War era stuff and most of this gear was never seen in action. After the Cold War Russia continued to develop EW equipment and after 2014, in Ukraine and the Baltic States, NATO was getting a better idea of how much trouble they were in. A lot, it turns out.

That is important because Russia now exports a lot more of this equipment. The Russians don’t mind making their electronic warfare tech more vulnerable to theft because Russian manufacturers need the money to stay in business. However, some key features are not included in export versions of EW gear and often the customer doesn’t mind because the price is right for the capabilities provided. NATO was eager to know more about the latest Russian gear and after 2015 a lot of this new EW equipment showed up in Syria as well.

There are numerous examples. One is the Rychag-AV jammer, which Russia announced in 2015 and in 2016 Russia revealed that a custom version of the M-8 transport helicopter (Mi-8MTPR-1) was equipped with Rychag-AV and was delivered to army units operating near Ukraine. In 2017 Mi-8MTPR-1 was seen operating over Crimea and local Ukrainian hackers, using custom hardware and software they had built, reported details of Rychag-AV in operation over Crimea. Russia claims Rychag-AV can automatically detect and jam enemy radar and other electronic signals up to 400 kilometers away. That was less alarming once NATO and Ukrainian EW experts had an opportunity to examine Rychag-AV in action. Rychag-AV is designed to be operated from aircraft, trucks and ships but it can detect more signals and farther away if airborne or having its sensors and jammers mounted on a high portion of a ship (where radars have long been mounted).

One known result of all this unexpected intel on new Russian EW gear was the news that the U.S. Army was able to develop and, in 2018, deploy to the troops a new EW system to detect and deal with new Russian EW weapons encountered in Ukraine and Syria over the last few years. The army, continuing to use the rapid development and deployment methods implemented after 2001 (and now called the Rapid Capabilities Office), developed new hardware and software to detect, analyze and cope (to a certain extent) with a lot of the new EW capabilities Russia had put to work in Ukraine and Syria. None of the recent Russian EW gear was radically new stuff, but further developments of systems they had built during the Cold War. What was unusual was the speed with which the U.S. military was able to respond. This was largely because it was now clear that the Russians had, for a long time, developed EW capabilities that the West underestimated. This was first revealed after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and became obvious that the EW pessimists in NATO (who warned that the Russians had EW gear NATO was unable to deal with because NATO leaders refused to believe what they were up against) were right. Now when improved versions of Russian Cold War EW gear began showing up in Ukraine and Syria that served as a sobering wakeup call that was acted on this time.

NATO was fortunate that East European NATO members that used to be part of the Soviet empire were familiar with how Russian EW doctrine and equipment worked and that expertise was also put to work. Particularly useful was the Ukraine experience, including the large number of Ukrainians who had worked on developing and building that Cold War EW tech and were now seeing it used against them by a resurgent Russia. The U.S. Army saw the opportunity and made the most of it. Russia also used a lot of their new EW gear in Syria, in part to impress potential customers and partly to get an idea of what Israel had. Unlike NATO, Israel did not underestimate Russian EW capabilities during the Cold War because Russian sold some of that EW equipment to Arab states who had a few opportunities to use it on Israel.

 


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