November 21, 2022
In the first days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Russian jamming disrupted Ukraine’s air-defense radars and communications links. The problem for Russian forces is that their electronic warfare also jammed their own communications. This “electronic fratricide” became so acute that Russian troops had to stop disrupting Ukrainian communications, according to a study by the Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank.
By the end of the first week of the invasion, Russian ground forces being unable to effectively communicate “became a greater threat to the Russian operation than Ukrainian [surface-to-air missile] systems, so their electronic warfare assets began to greatly scale back their operations after the first two days,” the RUSI report says.
Initially, Russia’s jamming offensive was devastating and validated Moscow’s heavy investment in electronic warfare. For years, the Pentagon has worried it lags far behind Russia in electronic-warfare capabilities, which could disrupt the extensive communications networks that enable the US military to fight in a coordinated fashion.
Generally, Russian electronic-warfare systems “have actually proven extremely effective,” Nick Reynolds, a coauthor of the RUSI study, told Insider, and Russia’s initial onslaught in Ukraine seemed to bear out the Pentagon’s fears. “During the first week of the invasion, Russian electronic warfare using jamming equipment and E-96M aerial decoys were highly effective in disrupting” Ukraine’s ground-based air-defense systems, the RUSI report says.
Russian jamming severely disrupted Ukrainian S-300 and SA-11 surface-to-air-missile batteries north of Kyiv. Russia also launched extensive ballistic- and cruise-missile strikes on Ukraine’s long-range radars and anti-aircraft batteries.
The combined effect was Ukraine’s ground-based air defenses were hit so hard that its badly outnumbered fleet of MiG-29 and Su-27 fighters had to take primary responsibility for protecting the country’s skies. But as Russia’s advance began to bog down, Russian troops discovered that they had “no coherent communications plan,” according to the RUSI report.
Russian units lacked trained radio operators and encryption keys to decipher coded communications. Some radios had cheap Chinese-made components that left them vulnerable to Ukrainian jamming. Russian mobile air-defense units — which were supposed to keep up with the armored columns — were also hampered by poor communications. The result was that Russia’s electronic offensive boomeranged. “The electronic warfare capabilities that had been initially very effective in degrading Ukrainian SAM systems were also causing serious electronic fratricide problems and thus compounding an increasingly critical communications breakdown among Russian ground force elements,” the RUSI report says.
Not surprisingly, Russia cut back on electronic warfare after the first two days of the war. “This allowed newly relocated Ukrainian SAM systems to regain much of their effectiveness, although it took time to repair or adapt to much of the damage to key radar systems for early warning and long-range missile guidance,” the report says. “In the first week of March, however, Ukrainian SAMs began to inflict significant losses on Russian attack sorties,” the report added.
Nonetheless, the ultimate failure of Russia’s jamming campaign wasn’t the technical quality of Russian jammers. Moscow’s electronic offensive fizzled for the same reasons that the ground offensive bogged down. Poor planning, lack of coordination, and a general indifference by Russian commanders toward getting the details right doomed what many thought would be easy advance on Kyiv.
Strangely, despite otherwise impressive EW capabilities, Russian communications security has also been atrocious, including instances of Russian soldiers using unencrypted cell phones for battlefield communications, allowing Ukrainian intelligence and foreign powers to eavesdrop.
The role of jamming in Ukraine reflects the growing importance of the electromagnetic spectrum for modern conflict. Using radio signals, infrared sensing, and radar to track foes and communicate with friendly forces is vital to combined-arms warfare.
Jamming itself has been a fixture of warfare since World War II, when Allied bombers and German air defenses waged a destructive cat-and-mouse game over Europe.
In the 1940s, manual jammers and chaff — aluminum strips that reflect radar waves like a real aircraft — could disrupt and decoy radio and radar.
Today’s systems are more sophisticated. “Stealth” technology makes aircraft harder to find, aircraft-mounted pods automatically detect and jam enemy radars, and radars are being designed to switch frequencies to avoid jamming.
But events in Ukraine show that even highly effective EW is not infallible — the game of electronic move and countermove will continue.
Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds a master’s in political science. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.