Electronic Weapons: Electronic Warfare in Ukraine


December 18, 2023: Since 2014 Russia has been threatening and sometimes invading its neighbors. Ukraine was invaded in 2022 and the Baltic States were threatened but protected by their membership in the NATO mutual defense organization. That did not stop Russia from using less obvious weapons, especially electronic warfare. Because of this NATO has learned a lot more about Russian post-Cold War EW (electronic warfare) capabilities.

Until 2022 and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the fighting in the eastern Ukraine Donbas region led the Russians to use a lot of their most modern electronic warfare equipment. Not just Cold War era equipment, 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 not encountered until now. NATO discovered that Russia had developed effective and reliable encrypted battlefield radios that proved difficult for Western forces to decrypt or jam. They just didn’t have many of them due to corruption but, as expected, Russian eavesdropping and jamming gear turned out to be very effective. This Russian gear greatly aided the pro-Russia Donbas rebels, who jammed or eavesdropped on all manner of Ukrainian communications like cell phones, military communications and control equipment for UAVs and anything else operated remotely. Worse for the West, the Russians did not use all the capabilities of their electronic gear and saved that for the next war, which started in 2022.

At the request of Ukraine NATO has provided a growing electronic warfare support effort and there has been, not surprisingly, little publicity about the result. That is typical 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 developed and used for the first time.

At the end of World War II Russia captured a lot of the German EW and ECM equipment and were impressed when they examined it. Because of this, Russia never exported a lot of their best Cold War era EW equipment and most of these systems were never seen in action. After the Cold War Russia continued to develop electronic warfare equipment and since 2014 Ukraine, the Baltic States and NATO got a better idea of how much trouble they were in. A lot, it turned out. And the situation got worse after Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022. They brought their EW capabilities with them. As the Russian invasion stalled and the Ukrainian began to push the Russian out, both sides relied more on EW because both Russia and Ukraine had large inventories of equipment and ideas.

In Ukraine NATO electronic warfare experts have had ample opportunity to get a better understanding of the latest Russian electronic warfare gear under combat conditions. That was 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. Meanwhile NATO would simply like to know more about the latest Russian gear, just in case. It turned out that the Russian EW community had a lot more ideas for new EW equipment and that became a problem for Ukraine and NATO. The Russians were able to come up with EW countermeasures which reduced Ukraine’s combat superiority. This was a crucial factor because of the heavy use of UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) by both sides for reconnaissance, surveillance and attacks using UAVs equipped with explosives. This led to several UAVs used in the same operation to simultaneously carry out the reconnaissance, surveillance, and attacks in rapid fashion. This gave the enemy little time to react. The best defense was effective ECM, often in the form of multiple jamming efforts to increase the chances of defeating or at least disrupting the attack and reducing its impact.

In Ukraine success at carrying out or defeating attacks combining multiple UAVs and EW techniques became the new normal. Not every military has the same resources for developing these new combat capabilities and those with less to work with will have to innovate to remain competitive.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close