On the battlefields of Ukraine, the simple act of turning on a cell phone can set off a shower of deadly bubbles. Artillery radar and remote controls for unmanned aerial vehicles can also lead to fiery shrapnel.
This is electronic warfare, a crucial but largely invisible aspect of the Russian war against Ukraine. Military commanders largely shy away from talking about it, fearing that they will jeopardize operations by revealing secrets.
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Electronic warfare technology targets communications, navigation and guidance systems to locate, blind and deceive the enemy and send out deadly blows. It is used against artillery, fighter jets, cruise missiles, drones and more. Soldiers also use it to protect their troops.
It is an area where Russia was thought to have a distinct advantage going into the war. But for reasons that are not entirely clear, his acclaimed electronic warfare was barely seen in the early stages of the war in the chaotic failure to capture the Ukrainian capital Kiev.
It has become a much bigger factor in the fierce fighting in eastern Ukraine, where shorter, easier-to-defend supply lines allow Russia to move electronic warfare equipment closer to the battlefield.
“They are blocking everything their systems can reach,” said an official from Aerorozvidka, a reconnaissance team of Ukrainian unmanned aerial vehicles, who spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons. “We can’t say they dominate, but they hinder us greatly.”
A Ukrainian intelligence official called the Russian threat “pretty serious” when it comes to disrupting reconnaissance efforts and commanders’ communications with troops. Russia’s blocking of GPS receivers on drones Ukraine uses to locate the enemy and direct artillery fire is particularly intense “on the line of contact,” he said.
Ukraine has had some success in countering Russia’s electronic warfare efforts. It has captured key pieces of hardware — key intelligence — and destroyed at least two multi-vehicle mobile electronic warfare units.
His own electronic warfare is difficult to judge. Analysts say it has improved significantly since 2014, when Russia took Crimea and unleashed a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine. But there are setbacks.
Last week, Russia claimed it had destroyed a Ukrainian electronic intelligence center in the southeastern city of Dniprovske. The allegation could not be independently confirmed and Ukrainian officials did not respond to a request for comment.
Ukraine has also made effective use of technology and intelligence from the United States and other NATO members. Such information helped Ukraine to sink the battlecruiser Moskva.
Allied satellites and surveillance planes are assisting from near skies, as is billionaire Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite communications network.
Electronic war has three basic elements: probing, attacking and protecting. First, information is gathered by locating electronic signals from the enemy.
When attacked, “white noise” interference disables and degrades enemy systems, including radio and cell phone communications, air defenses, and artillery radars. Then there is spoofing, which confuses and deceives. When it works, ammunition misses their targets.
“Operating on a modern battlefield without data is really difficult,” said retired Colonel Laurie Buckhout, a former chief of electronic warfare for the US military. Jamming “can blind and deafen an aircraft very quickly and very dangerously, especially if you lose GPS and radar and you are a jet flying at 600 miles per hour.”
All this explains the secrecy surrounding electronic warfare.
“It’s an incredibly classified field because it relies heavily on evolving, cutting-edge technologies where profits can be copied and erased very quickly,” said James Stidham, a communications security expert who has consulted for the U.S. state and homeland security departments.
Ukraine learned hard lessons about electronic warfare in 2014 and 2015, when Russia overwhelmed its troops with it. The Russians have knocked down drones and disabled nuclear warheads, penetrated cell phone networks for psychological operations and targeted Ukrainian armor.
A Ukrainian officer told Christian Brose, an aide to the late US Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., how Russian intelligence fighters tricked a commander into returning a wireless call from his mother. When he did, they geolocated him midway through the call and killed him with precision missiles, Brose wrote in the book “The Kill Chain.”
The US has also witnessed Russia’s electronic warfare in action in Syria, where its adversaries have turned against each other in the civil war.
In 2018, General Raymond Thomas, chief of US special operations, described how US pilots’ communications were regularly “broken down” in Syria in the “most aggressive” electronic warfare in the world.
Russia’s sophisticated systems are designed to blind American Airborne Warning and Control Systems, or AWACS, aircraft — the eyes and ears of battlefield commanders — as well as cruise missiles and spy satellites.
In the current war, electronic warfare has become a furious battleground.
Aerorozvidka has modified camera-equipped drones to locate enemy positions and drop mortars and grenades. Hacking is also used to poison or disable enemy electronics and to gather intelligence.
Ukrainian officials say their electronic warfare capabilities have improved radically since 2015. They include the use of encrypted US and Turkish communications equipment for a tactical advantage. Ukraine is so advanced that it is exporting some of its technology.
Russia is dealing with GPS jamming in areas from Finland to the Black Sea, said Lt. Col. Tyson Wetzel, an air force officer with the Atlantic Council. As a result, a regional Finnish airline, Transaviabaltica, had to cancel flights on one route for a week.
Russian outages have also disrupted Ukrainian television broadcasting, said Frank Backes, a director of California-based Kratos Defense, which has satellite ground stations in the region.
But in the early days of the war, Russia’s use of electronic warfare was less effective and extensive than expected. That may have contributed to the failure to destroy enough radar and anti-aircraft units to gain air superiority.
The Russian Defense Ministry has not responded to a request for comment on this article.
Some analysts believe Russian commanders held back units out of fear that the units would be captured. At least two were seized.
One was a Krasukha-4, which a US military database says was designed to block satellite signals, surveillance radars and radar-guided weapons more than 100 miles away. The other: the more advanced Borisoglebsk-2, which can block drone guidance systems and radio-controlled land mines.
Russia may also have restricted the use of electronic warfare early in the conflict over concerns that poorly trained or poorly motivated technicians would not be able to operate it properly.
“What we are learning now is that the Russians eventually turned it off because it disrupts their own communications so much,” said retired Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, a former US military commander for Europe.
The communication difficulties were apparent with many Russian troops speaking on insecure open radio channels, easily tracked by outsiders.
It’s unclear how much of an advantage Russia’s electronic assets can provide right now. Ukraine’s armed forces are now more concentrated than they were at the start of the war, which could make them easier to target.
Much depends on whether the Russian battalion’s tactical groups are “in reality configured as they are on paper,” said James Rands, of the military intelligence think tank Jane. Each group, consisting of about 1,000 troops, should have an electronic war unit. The Pentagon says there are 110 such groups in Ukraine.
The Kremlin also claims to have more than 1,000 small, versatile Orlan-10 unmanned aerial vehicles that it uses for cell phone reconnaissance, targeting, jamming and interception.
Russia lost about 50 of its Orlan-10s in the war, but “whatever they lose may be a small part of what flies,” said researcher Samuel Bendett of the Center for Naval Analyzes think tank.
Ukraine’s relative UAV strength is unclear, but Ukrainians have adapted technologies such as software-defined radio and 3D printing to remain agile.
The US and Britain also provide jamming equipment, but how much it helps is unclear. Neither country has provided details. Both sides’ ability to take out the other’s drones is crucial with the artillery they now so decisively scout in combat.
Musk’s Starlink is a proven asset. The more than 2,200 low-orbit satellites provide broadband internet to more than 150,000 Ukrainian ground stations. Breaking those connections is a challenge for Russia. It is much harder to block satellites in low Earth orbit than geostationary ones.
Musk has received critical acclaim from the Pentagon for at least temporarily beating the Russian malfunction of Ukrainian satellite uplinks with a quick software fix. But he has warned Ukrainians to keep those terminals off if possible — they are vulnerable to geolocation — and recently took to Twitter to worry about redoubled Russian interference efforts.
“I’m sure the Russians are getting smarter about that now,” said Wetzel, the Air Force lieutenant colonel.
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