Electronic Weapons: Exploiting Overconfidence


May 16, 2022: A major edge Ukrainian forces have used in the current war with Russia is superior software and communications. Ukraine was a center for developing complex military equipment during the Soviet era and most of those engineers, scientists and computer programmers switched to more lucrative commercial activities after independence in 1991. Many of these Ukrainians migrated but stayed in touch with family, friends and associates in a Ukraine finally free of centuries of Russian domination.

Many of these technically proficient Ukrainians turned their attention to defending that independence after the 2014 Russian seizure of Crimea along with half of Donbas in the east. Initially the effort was concentrated on dealing with a new generation of Russia EW (Electronic Warfare) systems. NATO nations were also concerned with this new EW equipment and cooperated with Ukrainians who were soon exposed to regular use of this new generation of EW gear. It was customary for the Russians to disparage efforts to counter its new equipment and the full extent of the Ukrainian success was not revealed until the Russians invaded. Russia thought they had proved the effectiveness of this new EW gear as well as their air force and ground forces in Ukraine, Syria and Libya. That wasn’t true. There was no effective opposition in Syria. Israel monitored, and occasionally tested, Russian capabilities and found poor performance and overconfidence. In Libya the Turks defeated Russian tech and helped Azerbaijan do the same against Russian-equipped Armenia. They ignored the warning signs and went into Ukraine believing they had tech superiority or, at worst, parity.

Russia also overlooked another difference. Ukraine had thousands of civilian engineers and scientists who often developed new systems on their own. Many were adopted by the Ukrainian military, especially in 2022 when invasion seemed imminent and became a reality in late February. Russia had nothing comparable and discouraged or outlawed such private enterprise.

The Ukrainian approach attracted help from American firm SpaceX and its founder Elon Musk. In late 2021 Ukraine was negotiating with SpaceX to gain early access to the new Starlink satellite-based high-speed Internet service. Once the Russians invaded, Musk ordered Starlink turned on for Ukraine and within days had delivered 500 user kits (a small satellite dish and a special modem) with thousands more following. Some Ukrainian engineers had already obtained user kits, to check out the tech and in anticipation of Starlink soon being accessible locally. Ukrainians were impressed by the potential for Starlink, because hundreds of users in other parts of the world already had access for testing purposes and reported consistent high-speed Internet access anywhere.

Another advantage of Starlink was the rapidity of upgrades or modifications to deal with problems, including Russian efforts to jam or disrupt Starlink’s performance in Ukraine. Not only were the Russians unable to disable Starlink but found its encrypted signal a major asset for the Ukrainian military and far superior to communications Russian troops had in Ukraine. Worse for the Russians was the Ukrainian ability to rapidly integrate Starlink with Ukrainian communications and fire control systems. This enabled the Ukrainians to operate much more effectively in combat and use their new, locally developed, GIS artillery fire control system. GIS linked all Ukrainian artillery systems within range of a target and could organize a mass fire on the target in less than a minute from the request being made.

This type of fire control was first developed by the U.S. Army in the 1930s and used extensively by the Allied forces throughout the war. During amphibious operations this system could integrate offshore ship guns with artillery ashore to put tremendous unexpected firepower on German attacks or stationary targets. After World War II the United States upgraded this system with computers as TACFIRE and later upgraded that to an improved version called AFTADS. While the original mass fires system used in World War II could organize a mass fire within twenty minutes early on and eventually five minutes, there were non-technical problems encountered after World War II. In 1960s Vietnam a mass fire took fifteen minutes to carry out and after 2001 that expanded to as much as an hour, mainly because of expanded ROE (Rules of Engagement) that eventually included army lawyers examining each fire request and often denying the request because of the possibility of civilian casualties, which were now expected to be near zero.

During World War II troops and civilians knew these massed fires were dangerous and even with 20,000 French civilians killed by air or artillery attacks during the Normandy invasion, the operation was hailed as a victory. That firepower killed far more German troops and most of France was free of the Germans after a few months. French civilians mourned their losses but hailed the rapid victory of French and other Allied forces over the Germans.

American troops have not been in a war like that since World War II. Ukraine is now facing a similar threat to World War II and uses their fire control tech to reduce the time to organize a mass artillery fire mission in as little as 30 seconds. The Russians are still using World War II tactics, with massed fire from artillery battalions (18 guns of rocket launchers) or brigades (three or more battalions). With their communications problems in Ukraine and the effectiveness of Ukrainian firepower, Russia is concentrating its fire power on civilian or industrial targets.

Civilians are advised to flee any Russian offensive because the Russians are treating Ukrainian civilians worse than the World War II Nazis did. The Russians are rounding up civilians, forcing some into labor units and sending the rest to internment camps in Russia, where they are hostages to encourage the men in labor units to not resist. They can always find a few locals willing to work for a new pro-Russian government. Russians will be encouraged to migrate to “liberated” Ukraine and occupy the homes and take over businesses left behind by Ukrainians who fled or were interned for refusing to collaborate. Many Russians are appalled with these policies and the fact that the rest of the world sees Russians as 21st century Nazis. Ukrainians sum this up with some humor, describing the large white “Z” used to identify Russian vehicles as half of a swastika, as the other half was stolen by corrupt Russian officials.

Fortunately for the Ukrainians, Russian troop morale and performance has not been enthusiastic, in part because about a third of the invaders have been killed, wounded or captured in the first month of the war. This made surviving or newly recruited Russians troops even less eager to fight their better prepared and armed neighbors. The fight is now over as Russia plans to annex portions of Ukraine they occupy and have their reluctant troops go on the defensive and force the Ukrainians to take heavy losses. That’s not how the Ukrainians operate and new tactics have been developed which defeat Russian defenders with far fewer losses among the Ukrainian attackers.

Russia could end it all by withdrawing from Ukrainian territory but that option is seen as the last one by Russian leaders. Some Russian military leaders and analysts insist withdrawal is the best option and should be used sooner rather than eventually. The unprecedented economic sanctions and potential long-term damage to the Russian economy make a withdrawal from Ukraine an attractive option. This is not the case with the political leaders who ordered and backed the invasion and many officers who committed war crimes while in Ukraine. It’s a struggle between most Russians who want out of the war and the few who ordered it and face retribution if Russia does not achieve some kind of victory.


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