Electronic Weapons: The Silenced Threat In Syria

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April 16, 2018: In March 2018 a cell phone photo of a Russian Mi-8 helicopter equipped with the new Rychag-AV appeared on the Internet. This Mi-8 was operating in northwestern Syria, where it would be used to jam enemy aircraft and missiles that depend on wireless communications. Russia first announced the Rychag-AV jammer in 2015 and in 2016 Russia announced that a custom version of the M-8 transport helicopter (Mi-8MTPR-1) equipped with Rychag-AV 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.

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). In addition to the Ukrainian hackers, NATO has had EW (Electronic Warfare) personnel in Ukraine for several years to monitor local Russian EW efforts. Not many details of what these monitors detected are made public since EW works best if its capabilities are a surprise. It is unknown if Russia has actually used Rychag-AV in Syria or Ukraine. Or if they did use it was it on a sustained basis (required to disrupt a large scale air operation, like the April 13 attack on Syrian chemical warfare facilities) or for short periods, just to test the equipment.

Russia is still striving to update a lot of its Cold War era military equipment and EW gear was one of the few categories that had priority. These upgrades began to appear in the last decade and Russia sent most of them to Syria or used them against Ukraine to obtain some combat zone experience. Systems like Rychag-AV are similar to the jamming pods the U.S. has been developing since the 1960s. Russia has always been a decade or more behind the West in this technology. Rychag-AV is an effort catch up and uses a computerized library of signals so that whatever the Rychag-AV detects it can identify and then send out the most effective jamming signal. Rychag-AV may be able to detect signals 400 kilometers distant but the Mi-8 helicopter has a max payload of four tons and limited electrical generating capability so the jamming range is probably more like 100 kilometers (if that).

So far Russia has ordered about twenty Rychag-AV systems and most of them appear to be mounted in Mi-8s. These EW helicopters would provide jamming services for helicopters gunships and ground attack aircraft and that appears to be what they are doing in Syria. So far they have only been seen in the northwest apparently guarding the main Russian airbase (Hmeimim) there. This is also about as far away from Israel as you can get because the Israelis now have a chance to monitor Rychag-AV in action as well.

The Mi-8MTPR-1 replaces a similar, but much less capable, system Russia deployed on specialized Mi-8s in the 1980s. Weighing about 14 tons, and carrying a four ton load, the current Mi-8 is nearly identical to the more numerous Mi-17 export model. Mi-8/17 has a range of 800 kilometers at a cruising speed of 260 kilometers per hour. Top speed is 280 kilometers per hour. There is a crew of three and as many passengers as can be squeezed in (up to 40 people, but usually 20-30.) A sling underneath can also carry up to four tons. Some 17,000 Mi-8/17 helicopters have been built since the 1960s with about twenty percent exported. The Mi-17 is like its Mi-8 ancestor, rugged, inexpensive (under $10 million each) and better suited for less affluent nations. But the Russian Army still uses a lot of them because they are rugged, reliable, easy to maintain and cheap. For these reasons, Mi-8s are trusted to carry and operate complex and expensive systems like Rychag-AV.

 


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