The Underwhelming Performance of Russian Land Forces Electronic Warfare during Phase-1 of the Ukraine War: the 24th of February to the 6th of April 2022
Abstract: On the 24th of February 2022, the Russian Armed Forces invaded Ukraine. Spearheaded by the army, the land element saw Russia’s largest ever combat deployment of Electronic Warfare (EW) systems. This article examines the application of EW by Russia’s land forces during the first phase of the invasion, which concluded in early April when Russian troops pulled back from Kyiv. It will detail the EW assets deployed by Russian ground forces, their targets, and their effectiveness. The article will draw conclusions on Russia’s deployment of EW to support its manoeuvre forces during this phase of the conflict.
Problem statement: How to understand the role of EW assets in the Russian Land Forces’ operations in Ukraine in the war’s initial phase and what this may mean for NATO and allied nations in the future?
Bottom-line-up-front: The indispensable role that the electromagnetic spectrum plays in modern military operations means that it cannot be ignored.
So what?: Forces must learn to manoeuvre in this spectrum as they do on the oceans, on land, in the air, and in space. Failure to master manoeuvre in the electromagnetic spectrum can risk the success of manoeuvre in the physical domains.
Formidable EW Support?
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was not a surprise but was no less of a shock. Twelve corps-sized formations, comprising at least 20 tactical formations, constituted the bulk of Russia’s forces. The Russian Army primarily led the invasion of Ukraine. Manoeuvre formations were supported by land forces from the Russian Navy and Russian Airborne Forces, the latter being an independent branch of the Russian armed forces.
Formidable EW support was expected by analysts and experts on the Russian military to support these manoeuvre elements. The Russian armed forces have traditionally placed a high reliance on EW. The Russian Navy famously used electronic warfare during the 1904/5 Russo-Japanese War. Radio operators onboard the Imperial Russian Navy’s Potemkin battleship disrupted Imperial Japanese Navy fire control radio traffic. EW forces are considered so important that Russia commemorates her armed forces’ EW exploits with Electronic Warfare Day, a public holiday every 15th of April.
The Russian armed forces have traditionally placed a high reliance on EW.
The Russian Army sees EW as much a part of the manoeuvre force as infantry, armour, artillery, close air support, and combat support. There is an aphorism that land forces doctrine prescribes attriting one-third of an enemy force and jamming another third, causing the remaining third to collapse. This emphasis on EW is reflected in the sheer size of the army’s EW force. The army deploys one independent EW brigade with each of Russia’s four military districts. These provide operational-level electronic warfare to the entirety of the military district’s land manoeuvre force. At the tactical level, one EW company is thought to be organic to each of the army’s tank/motorised rifle brigades/divisions. This is mirrored in the Airborne Forces and naval infantry units with similar company-sized EW units.
In total, Russian ground forces may have a total of five independent EW brigades at their disposal, including a headquarters brigade. These are thought to be joined by 31 EW companies deployed with the army and twelve air force helicopter EW regiments. A further 16 EW companies are deployed with the airborne forces and naval infantry. A full breakdown of Russian land forces EW units is shown in figure 1.
Most of the Russian Army manoeuvre force appears to have been deployed to support Phase 1 of the Ukraine invasion. Army EW units believed to have been deployed are shown in figure 2. All the army’s independent EW brigades are thought to have deployed into the Ukraine theatre of operations. In addition, 28 of the army’s 32 tactical EW companies (90 per cent) may have also been deployed.
All the army’s independent EW brigades are thought to have deployed into the Ukraine theatre of operations.
The EW Battle Plan
While no details have appeared in the public domain regarding the intended missions of the army’s EW force, broad assumptions can be drawn. It appears the army had five major EW targets: military and civilian radio communications, Satellite Communications (SATCOM), Global Navigation Satellite Signals (GNSS), Uninhabited Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), and radar. The Russian Army deploys specific EW platforms covering each of the radio wavebands used by these targets. These systems either detect, locate and identify, or attack these wavebands—or do all. The general frequencies used by these targets are detailed in figure 3.
The Russian armed forces employed EW capabilities in the prelude to the invasion and as its overture. Russian efforts initially focused on jamming ground-based air surveillance radars. This jamming was done to degrade the Ukrainian Air Force’s Integrated Air Defence System as part of the Russian Air Force’s Offensive Counter Air (OCA) effort. This allowed Russian Airborne Forces to capture the strategically important Hostomel Airport, located less than ten kilometres (six miles) from Kyiv. The airfield was to be the conduit for troops and equipment to support Russia’s advance towards the capital. However, Russian forces had vacated the airport by the 28th of March as the Russian high command wound down operations around Kyiv. It is possible that the assault on Hostomel Airport may have been one of the first major Russian EW failings of the war. Russian airborne troops received details of the operation three days before. Units began discussing their preparations over open radio networks, providing Ukraine with useful intelligence. This hallmarked the shoddy Emissions Control (EMCON), which has characterised the Russian Army’s use of radio communications during the conflict.
It is possible that the assault on Hostomel Airport may have been one of the first major Russian EW failings of the war. Russian airborne troops received details of the operation three days before.
Further failings were witnessed by the inability of Russian Army EW to comprehensively shut down Ukrainian cellphone communications. Ukraine has several cellular networks operating on frequencies of 800 megahertz/MHz to 2600MHz. These networks proved invaluable for Ukrainian citizens to report movements of Russian units they witnessed as the invasion unfolded. Russian manoeuvre units were largely stymied by marsh and woodland, forcing them onto Ukraine’s roads where they could be easily observed. This ‘Citizens ISR’ (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) approach paid dividends. Ukrainian forces exploited the resulting intelligence for artillery fire.
Forcing Russian manoeuvre units onto Ukraine’s roads not only assisted civilian ISR gathering and Ukrainian interdiction, but the sheer weight of Russian Army traffic also began to cause congestion. This slowed the pace of the advance and resulted in a paradox: Ukrainian artillery could shell Russian units at the tactical edge, but Russian artillery was too far back to interdict the former. The congestion seemed to prevent the army from moving its EW units into Ukraine en masse. Russian Army doctrine calls for EW to be fully embedded into the broader manoeuvre formation. There, it can benefit from the protection provided by the formation while giving overarching EW support. The unfolding tactical situation meant the army was unwilling to deploy EW units deeper into Ukraine lest they get captured. Instead, these units largely stayed behind Russo/Belarus-Ukrainian borders. As a result, many of these EW units would simply have been out of range of Ukrainian Army communications. This meant that Ukrainian military communications could neither be jammed, nor their traffic exploited for intelligence.
The situation was not all plain sailing for the Ukrainians. An eyewitness account of the battle for Kyiv attested to the severity of jamming experienced by some units: “Russian EW was vicious and effective at the beginning of the Battle for Kyiv”, one account noted, adversely affecting Ukrainian tactical communications. Ukrainian forces were able to adapt to using messengers to handle some communications traffic when jamming occurred. Whilst high-end Russian EW capabilities may not have been available, some manoeuvre units may have been able to deploy jammers at the tactical edge to hit Ukrainian communications. For example, dismounted troops routinely use the REB-N Lesochek backpack electronic warfare system. Ostensibly developed to attack Radio-Controlled Improvised Explosive Devices (RCIED), the system has utility against Very/Ultra High Frequency (V/UHF) radios. Lesochek can typically jam targets within a circa seven-kilometre (four-mile) radius. Likewise, the RB-531B Infauna vehicle-mounted jammer has an effective range of circa 20km (eleven miles). Like the Lesochek jammer, Infauna is primarily tasked to provide RCIED protection, particularly for vehicle convoys. It is doubtful whether Infauna or Lesochek will affect encrypted Ukrainian tactical communications. Since 2014, Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System (SINCGARS) radios have been supplied to Ukraine by the United States. SINCGARS is reportedly robust against Russian communications jamming. The problem for the Ukrainian Army is more likely to have been the effects of jamming against unencrypted civilian-standard handheld radios. Much like their Russian adversaries, Ukrainian dismounted infantry uses civilian radios. These are relatively easy prey for Russian Army tactical jammers.
Whilst high-end Russian EW capabilities may not have been available, some manoeuvre units may have been able to deploy jammers at the tactical edge to hit Ukrainian communications.
During the initial stages of the invasion, the Russian Army EW was in a curious situation. On the one hand, jamming at the tactical edge may have been severe. On the other, the force appears to have been unable to move its larger brigade-level EW assets into theatre to provide wider tactical and operational-level coverage.
Military and Civilian Communications Jamming
Beyond the Battle of Kyiv, wider Russian jamming of Ukrainian tactical V/UHF communications appears to have been conspicuous by its absence. At this stage, it is impossible to say definitively why this might be the case. Have Russian Army EW cadres refrained from a heavier weight of attack against Ukrainian Army communications for fear this would also jam friendly communications? One of the remarkable elements of the conflict has been Russian forces transmitting radio traffic sans encryption. Several incidences have been documented of unencrypted Russian high frequency and VHF communications.
It is impossible to say for certain why the Russian Army has been seemingly cavalier about its use of unencrypted traffic. The army may have insufficient numbers of secure radios. It may lack interoperability between encrypted and unencrypted systems. This may force open communications to be the default choice to ensure units can communicate. Some elements in the army may lack trust in their secure communications, preferring to use unencrypted systems. An apparent inability to provide army-wide secure communications may have forced the Russian Army to refrain from a heavier weight of electronic attack. In a nutshell, perhaps they cannot jam Ukrainian radio communications without jamming their own?
It is impossible to say for certain why the Russian Army has been seemingly cavalier about its use of unencrypted traffic. The army may have insufficient numbers of secure radios. It may lack interoperability between encrypted and unencrypted systems.
Similar reasons may be affecting the Russian Army’s jamming of cellular communications. Russian Communications Intelligence (COMINT) cadres may have wanted to keep parts of the Ukrainian cellphone network unjammed. This would let them eavesdrop on communications and collect intelligence. Secondly, the Russian Army partly depends on local cellphone networks for communications. The Russian military operates a secure cellphone system called ERA which, for unknown reasons, had reportedly experienced problems in Ukraine. Some reports suggest this is the result of Russian forces destroying cellphone towers. While this may have caused local degradations in coverage, this has not caused more significant outages of Ukrainian cellular coverage, and the exact reasons for ERA’s failure are unknown. What seems certain is that because of ERA’s failure, the Russian Army may be using unsecured cellphone networks instead.
Likewise, Russian satellite communications jamming does not seem to have been as widespread as originally expected. Russian EW doctrine prioritises detecting and attacking SATCOM as a way of degrading hostile Command and Control (C2). Russian forces have several systems for detecting and jamming SATCOM like the RB-314 Leer-3 deployed with the army’s EW brigades and R-330Zh Zhitel used by army EW companies. Ukrainian SATCOM has been targeted by Russia, but via cyberattack. Jamming may have been used against Ukrainian SATCOM, but if so, scant details have emerged.
Viasat’s SATCOM coverage of Ukraine was disrupted by a Russian cyberattack in the early hours of the 24th of February as the invasion commenced. These attacks were directed against Viasat SATCOM terminals on the ground rather than the company’s KA-SAT satellite delivering these services. Viasat terminals were believed to be widely used by the Ukrainian military for communications. Viasat was not the only SATCOM provider to experience cyberattacks in Ukraine. SpaceX began supplying the first of thousands of Starlink SATCOM terminals to Ukraine on the 28th of February. These were delivered in a bid to outflank Russian attempts to disrupt Ukraine’s terrestrial internet coverage as Starlink provides space-based wideband internet services. These services also became targets for Russian cyberattacks. In both cases, attacks’ effects were remedied via software fixes issued to users.
That Russia used hacking rather than jamming to attack Ukrainian SATCOM may have been due to two reasons: Firstly, the operating frequencies of the Viasat and Starlink services. Viasat provides some of its SATCOM services in Ka-band (26.5-40 gigahertz/GHz uplink/18-20GHz downlink). These frequencies are outside the published capabilities of Russian Army SATCOM jamming systems. Starlink uses Ku-band (14GHz uplink/10.9-12.75GHz downlink) in addition to Ka-band. Some Russian Army systems can theoretically attack Ku-band links. These include the MKTK-1A Dzyudoist system used by the EW companies furnishing Russian airborne units alongside the 1RL257 Krasukha-4 equipping army EW brigades. However, these may have relatively localised coverage against ground-based SATCOM terminals using these frequencies. These platforms would be useful assets for tactical SATCOM jamming. Nonetheless, numerous systems would be needed for operational coverage.
The Russian Army may have deployed four Krasukha-4 systems into the Ukrainian theatre to equip each of the four EW brigades believed to have been deployed. Each of these can transmit jamming signals across an area of 70,685 square kilometres (27,291 square miles). Together, all four systems could cover 282,700 square kilometres (109,151 square miles). This equates to 46 percent of Ukrainian territory. Also, this assumes all Krashukha-4s would be simultaneously available to support such a mission. These platforms would invariably be required to support other jamming tasks, making this unlikely. Finally, it is possible that the waveforms and/or encryption schemes used by the Starlink and Viasat networks are simply resistant to Russian jamming.
While SATCOM was attacked using cyberwarfare, Russian forces directed conventional jamming against Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) signals. GNSS constellations like the US Global Positioning System, Europe’s Galileo, the People’s Republic of China’s Beidou, and Russia’s GLONAS use 1.1-1.6GHz frequencies. These fall squarely within the coverage set of Russian Army EW capabilities. For example, the RB-314V system used by the force’s EW brigades is tasked with jamming GNSS signals. Reports emerged in April that Russian forces were specifically targeting signals transmitted by the GPS constellation. This was corroborated by analysis from HawkEye 360. This company provides space-based geolocation services using the detection of radio frequency emissions from radars and communications devices. Hawkeye 360’s satellites detected transmissions from Russian GNSS jammers. These were recorded from November 2021, emanating from the frontiers of Russian-occupied parts of eastern Ukraine. Further interference was recorded once more along the Belarussian-Ukrainian border, specifically north of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
GNSS constellations like the US Global Positioning System, Europe’s Galileo, the People’s Republic of China’s Beidou, and Russia’s GLONAS use 1.1-1.6GHz frequencies. These fall squarely within the coverage set of Russian Army EW capabilities.
The GNSS jamming recorded by HawkEye 360 was relatively localised. Electronic warfare tactics dictate that one must jam the receiver, not the transmitter. This is because it is easier to transmit a jamming signal of a higher power into a GNSS receiver, for example, than the GNSS signal itself. GNSS signals have thousands of kilometres to travel to Earth from space. This means they have a relatively low power of circa 50 watts by the time they reach GNSS receivers on Earth. A more powerful jamming signal transmitted into a GNSS receiver will ‘crowd out’ the actual GNSS signal. Russia’s counter-GNSS systems, namely the RB-314V and the R-330Zh, have a relatively limited footprint that they can cover with GNSS jamming. The Orlan-10 UAVs, supporting the RB-314V’s jamming mission, provide a 113 square kilometres (44 square miles) footprint. The R-330Zh will cover 706 square kilometres (27) square miles).
Definitive information on the performance of Russian Army EW systems against UAVs at the start of the conflict is harder to come by. Authoritative sources inside Ukraine revealed that Russian success in this regard is mixed. The Russian Army is clearly concerned about the UAV threat and deploys several EW Systems to engage such threats, including Dzyudoist and Lesochek. It seems these systems have had some success in jamming radio links used by civilian-standard drones. This has caused some UAVs to land as soon as the radio link between the aircraft and controller on the ground is broken. Alternatively, the aircraft may fly back to its point of origin. Russian COMINT platforms have, in some cases, been able to find the UAV pilot by triangulating the point of origin of the drone pilot’s radio signals and those of the aircraft. The UAV pilot’s position is then attacked with artillery.
Triangulating a UAV’s position via its radio emissions is useful from an air defence perspective. As these aircraft can have a very small radar cross-section, they are not always visible to Russian air defence radar. Instead, COMINT systems can detect the UAVs using with reasonable accuracy. They can then be engaged with Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMs) or Anti-Aircraft Artillery (AAA).
Matters have been more problematic for the Russian Army as the Ukrainians have been using military-grade UAVs. These aircraft are typically supplied with high-grade radio links incorporating low-probability of interception/detection waveforms. Other electronic counter-measures such as jamming signal recognition and rejection may also be incorporated into the aircraft. Such transmissions have been more challenging for Russian Army EW cadres to detect and intercept.
Russian EW System Losses and Ukrainian Emission Control
Equipment losses and Ukrainian EMCON may have also hampered Russian Army EW during Phase 1 of the conflict. For understandable reasons, Russian EW systems have been a prime target for the Ukrainian armed forces. This has been helped by the fact that these systems are often housed on large vehicles with complex and visible antenna arrays and are thus highly recognisable. Open sources say that the Russian Army lost ten EW platforms during this stage of the war. Losses of these systems may be keenly felt. They are by nature large, complex, and expensive capabilities that are not easily replaceable. Sources have informed the author that Russian Army EW systems are not built on production lines and take several months to construct. This makes them a lucrative target for Ukraine.
The Ukrainian armed forces have also learned valuable lessons regarding the electromagnetic spectrum, after Russian EW blooded them during the country’s first invasion in 2014. Key to this has been Ukrainian EMCON. Ukrainian troops are now told to leave their own SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) card at home and buy one for use while deployed. Soldiers are asked to use their cellphones a minimum of half a kilometre (0.3 miles) from their position. They should not be on their own when making a call and preferably do so from crowded areas still under Ukrainian control. In addition, they must keep their phone switched off as much as possible. They must also be aware that the enemy may eavesdrop on their communications traffic and not accept SIM cards from local civilians.
Ukrainian troops are now told to leave their own SIM card at home and buy one for use while deployed. Soldiers are asked to use their cellphones a minimum of half a kilometre (0.3 miles) from their position.
Before the invasion, it was reported that the Ukrainian Army had fallen back on alternative means of communications to pre-empt Russian Army EW. To this end, the army began using analogue cable telephone services the traffic on which is noticeably harder to intercept and jam. Motorcycle dispatch riders are also being used to move traffic around the battlespace. Together with the Ukrainian Army’s use of SINCGARS, it is likely this has helped degrade the efficacy of Russian EW during this phase of the conflict.
While we have some insight into the fight in the electronic spectrum between the Russian Army and its Ukrainian counterparts, there are still questions regarding the former’s efficacy. No information appears in the public domain regarding the extent to which Russian Army EW has been successful against Ukrainian ground-based weapons-locating, fire control, and air surveillance radars. It is possible that success has been limited. Russian Army EW systems would need a relatively close line-of-sight range towards these systems to have any chance of jamming them. This risk places them squarely in the sights of Ukrainian artillery. The Russian Army may have demurred from this course of action for fear of losing EW platforms.
The loss of EW systems could impact the long-term efficacy of the Russian Army’s EW posture. Of the ten systems Russian land forces have lost, two have been captured. This includes a single R-330BMV Borisoglebsk-2B platform targeting ground and airborne emitters using frequencies of 30-100MHz. The Borisoglebsk system is mainly used by army EW companies at the tactical level. Ukrainian forces also captured a command post for a Krashukha-4 jammer. Anecdotal reports shared with the author say that this was spirited out of Ukraine and is now being examined by experts in the United Kingdom. The ongoing conflict will have provided NATO EW cadres with a treasure trove of intelligence on how the Russian Army applies EW. Captured EW equipment may yield secrets on how NATO emitters can be further safeguarded against Russian EW.
On the 7th of April, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine underwent a strategic change. Moscow’s attempts to capture Kyiv and decapitate the Ukrainian government had failed. Instead, the Russian high command turned its efforts towards expanding Russia’s occupation of eastern Ukraine. It is impossible to say for certain the extent to which land forces EW, or a lack of therein, influenced Russia’s initial failure. That the Russian high command misread the battle, underestimating the strength and tenacity of Ukrainian resistance, seems certain. Russian EW failed to win electromagnetic spectrum and superiority in this early part of the conflict. In doing so, it handed the Ukrainian defenders a tactical and operational advantage. We are unlikely to know definitively why this was the case for some time as the Russian Army is unlikely to air its dirty laundry in public. Moreover, information on the performance of the Russian military presented by Russia must be treated with a healthy degree of scepticism, given the propensity of the Russian government to be dishonest regarding significant elements of their military operations.
It is impossible to say for certain the extent to which land forces EW, or a lack of therein, influenced Russia’s initial failure.
The inability to move operational EW systems further into the theatre during Phase 1 will have degraded the army’s ability to provide wider operational and tactical coverage. Materiel losses of Russian EW platforms will have also been felt. Then, we must consider the intangible factors. Put simply, just how good is Russian Army EW? Is it working as advertised and living up to its fearsome reputation? Is the equipment easy to repair and maintain in the field? Are the logistics to support these systems robust and efficient? Are manoeuvre units comfortable and proficient in fighting with EW support? Do manoeuvre force commanders have confidence and trust in army EW capabilities? If not, why not? Such questions may have to wait until the end of the war for answers. Even then, NATO and allied nations may be dependent on any defecting or captured Russian EW cadres to tell them what worked, and what did not.
Russia’s withdrawal from Kyiv and its environs marked a new stage of the war. As these words were being written, Russia was continuing efforts to expand her occupation of eastern and southern Ukraine. The electronic war may also have entered a new phase. A report published by London’s Royal United Services Institute in June 2022 spoke of the Russian Army doubling down on its battle in the spectrum. The report warned that “The initial phase of the war in Ukraine is not indicative of Russian EW capabilities”. Citing failures in Russian Army EW, it continued that “the Russian armed forces have started to use their EW capabilities more systematically”. In order to render Ukrainian UAVs ineffective, the army has intensified jamming against UAV radio links and the GNSS signals these aircraft depend on. The army has deepened its EW-artillery cooperation with fires targeting UAV ground control stations based on their radio emissions. The report added that, in combination with ground-based air defence, a Ukrainian UAV now has a lifespan of around one week.
The initial phase of the war in Ukraine is not indicative of Russian EW capabilities. The Russian armed forces have started to use their EW capabilities more systematically.
That said, the Russian Army still struggles to meaningfully deny tactical and satellite communications to the Ukrainian Army. The report says that “(i)n sum, Russian EW employment is not preventing Ukrainian communications and denying access to the electromagnetic spectrum. However, it is disrupting”. It will be interesting to compare the Russian Army’s use of EW at various stages of the Ukraine conflict. Sadly, the end of this war still seems some way off, and that discussion will have to wait for another time.
Thomas Withington is a writer and analyst specialising in electronic warfare, radar, and military communications. His work has been published extensively in specialist and non-specialist publications alike. He also works as a consultant on these subjects for several public and private sector organisations worldwide and is a regular commentator on defence subjects for the mass media. The views contained in this article are the author’s alone.
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