10 December 2019

Lessons after the electronic war in Ukraine

Mircea Mocanu

The armed confrontation in Eastern Ukraine got the attention of all security observers and military analysts, for various reasons. One of the reasons is the electronic warfare because, unlike the war in Afghanistan or other recent conflicts, the belligerants were technologically near peers. Therefore, after analyzing the electronic warfare facets, NATO members and other interested nations can develop planning and deterrence requirements for a would-be confrontation with near peer armed forces.

Image source: Mediafax

The diversity of electronic actions conducted in Ukraine

The media reported  operational information a Ukrainian officer talked about during the annual meeting of Old Crows association, on October 29th 2019, on electronic warfare (EW) actions conducted by Russian armed forces in Eastern Ukraine. These aspects are relevant because lieutenant-colonel Ivan Pavlenko was an EW responsible in the Ukrainian Joint Forces Headquarter, then with Ukraine’s General Staff of the Army, during the armed conflicts in Donbass.

An action the Ukrainian military noticed was the premeditated sabotage of Russian manufactured radio sets (totally or essential functions) purchased by the Ukrainian armed forces before the crisis and hostilities started. No technical details were provided, but a so-called kill switch was triggered and it was used the word “virus”, which would have been inoculated in devices to cause sabotage when the producer/commanders decided to deactivate those radios. Among the targets damaged by such actions, in 2015, there was a „radio repeater”,. Obviously, the question that immediately comes to our minds is what if all the radio stations or Russian electronic equipment have such devices / software to deactivate or cancel core functions of this equipment.

The second type of electronic aggression was eavesdroppingcommunication interception (signals intelligence- SIGINT/ electronic support measures-ESM), a passive and rather usual action, as it is conducted during peace as well, in order to get useful information for strategic decisions, not just for military operations. As for Eastern Ukraine conflict, however, this type of activity was conducted both over the military radios and civilian cellphone communications, up to a 30 kilometers behind the contact line. These actions were especially noticed when, in several situations, after the impact of jamming or deactivation, the Ukrainians turned to commercial communications. To make that happen, the aggressor needs to emulate the communication network node wherewith moblie phone users are connected. Therefore, the aggressor takes over the entire traffic through that node without interrupting the communications. The aggressor is somehow offering network node services for free, however, „intercepting all or any communication”. The use of private information obtained from Ukrainians’ smartphones (servicemen or other individuals of interest) is another exploitation method used in the Donbass conflict.

Also among the signals intelligence actions, the Russian troops have conducted direction finding (DF) activity on Ukrainian radio transmitters of various kinds. They aimed at identifying and fixing counting-battery radars (AN/TPQ-36, American, or 1L220UK, Ukrainian) for artillery rounds detection. After DF, these counting-battery radars were jammed to stop warning the Ukrainian troops on the artillery strikes and prevent actions. It is noteworthy that Russian troops have used drones with DF payloads (Orlan- 10 Russian drones have such capability), to increase accuracy of Ukrainian transmitter fixing. Such drones were also used in Syria.

As for the next type of EW action, jamming, used a lot by Russian troops, Pavlenko said it was effectively used against classic radio stations, frequency bands such as 137-180 MHz and 400-470 MHz. Therefore, Ukrainian troops had to use frequency-hopping radio stations imported from US and Turkey. As for the effectiveness of jamming on such radio methods, there are not clear data, most likely, the duration these were used was not enough to lead to technical conclusions. Or, also possible, the Ukrainian officer chose not to offer further information on this issue.

They have also jammed the GPS navigation signals, which led to losing around 100 Ukrainian drones between 2015 and 2017. However, one must notice that the jamming used by Russian troops avoided the Ka band, where the Russian GLONASS satellite navigation system works, and is used, of course, by Russian troops. In fact, both armed forces use GLONASS navigation equipment.

Besides jamming, the electronic action on GPS navigation systems also included spoofing, which is the alteration of navigation data within received signals. Although GPS signals altered through spoofing seem normal, they differ from correctly calculated data, and cause major errors in battlefield actions, affecting the operational outcome. The Ukrainian colonel has also mentioned a decrease in jamming and spoofing actions on GPS signal, without identifying an explanation related to battlefield actions. There is speculation that this diminution of Russian troops’ electronic actions may result from the transfer of Russian equipment to Theatre of Operations Syria. Such option would mean that the Russian armed forces do not have large quantities of such equipment. But we know already that military planners avoid to count on such assumptions.

Information obtained through hacking was used for information warfare through manipulation actions (fake news, propaganda, demoralization through insults and threats). Psychological warfare messages were -directly sent to smartphone users, to family members or other individuals significant to targets, including to colonel Pavlenko.

Actions to combat electronic aggression

Donbass confrontations brought the Russian armed forces great benefits in the form of operational experience against an enemy with a similar technological level (near peer). In fact, according to a RAND report, for the past years, the “air defense, electronic warfare, and indirect fires capabilities stand out as the areas where the Russian military has emphasized both quality and quantity”. The same study reveals that “Russia has rotated more than 30 Brigades and regiments through the Donbass in the last few years, and have gained valuable combat experience… different kind of experience that the US Army 31 Brigades have rotated through Iraq and Afghanistan over the last two decades”. The report concludes that the investments in lighter and more mobile armored units, ground based missile and  long range fire systems and electronic warfare and cyber capabilities have turned the Russian military into high-mobility force, able of conducting”combined-arms maneuvers at the formation level”, which would „pose serious challenges to US or NATO units in a conventional conflict” in Europe.

Therefore, the question would be how to counter Russia’s EW capabilities in a possible conventional conflict with Russia. It seems that a first action would be to contain Moscow’s ability to develop hi-tech EW equipment. This could be done by imposing sanction to stop Russian manufacturers from getting high-tech electronic components. In the mentioned paper, colonel Pavlekno claimed that the diminution of Russian forces’ electronic warfare actions has led, among others, to depletion of high-tech component supplies, which were meant to secure the repair and replacement of equipment lost in combat. However, this statements may also have political reasons behind, as it may contribute to Western powers’ decision to maintain/ increase sanctions against Russia. Anyhow, caution in transfer of military technology towards Russia is one of NATO and EU’s concerns. Also, not only EU and NATO armed forces caution, but any country should be careful when buying Russian-made military equipment, in order to avoid the “kill switch” type of risks.

Indeed, besides strategic commercial conduct, it is normal to increase the development of performant electronic warfare equipment, in order to increase the technological asymmetry that guarantees success in combat. One of the normal actions would be reducing the electromagnetic signature of one’s own radio activity, therefore providing communications and other electronic radio waves through secure signals, protected against enemy detection, DF and jamming. Hence, the utilization of equipment using signals (frequency-hopping or direct sequence) and secure satellite communications.

At tactical level, they are already working on concepts regarding a wider use of “drones swarm” with electronic warfare. Drones present the automation advantage, which is workin unmanned, thus protecting the human personnel and also providing better coverage of the battlefield. These drones must operate in hostile electromagnetic environment, and Russian manufacturers are already developing such equipment.

However, the most important developments in electronic warfare is the use of Artificial Intelligence. A study made by National Instruments  offers essential information on software defined radios concepts and the implementation of these concepts in SIGINT actions and in the larger activity of electromagnetic spectrum management in the tactical field. Obviously, using AI and deep learning techniques is the response to current increase in electromagnetic spectrum complexity, when a warrying party conducts hostile actions in the electromagnetic battlefield.

The need to train troops for jamming situations

An important topic is training the troops in hostile electromagnetic environment conditions, which is, mainly, a strong jamming situation. The problem with this topic is the habit of training through exercises wherein the jamming component is deliberately diminished, to ensure the success of the training objectives.

Indeed, the human nature makes this be applicable for many countries, but it was recently noticed (October 30th 2019) for the American armed forces. Observers claim that the most important exercises are too easy, to use a euphemism for scenarios which are neither probable, nor dangerous. Electronic warfare specialists whose duty is to jam communications of fellow soldiers  who conduct other training actions, are asked to stop jamming or simply “mark” the electronic actions because jamming is too effective and the other participants in exercise must conclude their own actions with relevant conclusions. Such tricks can be made by massively reducing the jamming power (from 1000 W to 50W) or reducing jamming time to a few hours or only a few minutes, during the whole exercise.

Other electronic warfare shortcomings noticed in many military exercises happen when servicemen keep their mobile phones during combat (which reveals the location of a large group of people or of some commanders) and the lack or back-up communication networks. For other cases, even if there are back-up options, these are not used, or are not enough used and sometimes they lose connection with network correspondents. Many times, military planners neglect the PACE principle (Primary, Alternative, Contingency and Emergency) to provide successive back-up levels.

There is also a legal limitation regarding jamming (especially the wide-band and power jamming, highly used in military operations) for exercises conducted close to inhabited areas. This legal limitation is the interdiction to interfere with civilian radio communication, which should not be interrupted for military exercises. The issue is even more serious for navigation signals, given that many civilian transport systems use satellite navigation, like the airlines.

In the United States, this issue got to the US Congress, who authorized the establishment of an cross-functional investigation task-force meant to analyse and provide solutions for military activities in the electromagnetic operational environment. On the other hand, the US Strategic Command has recently spent $32 million to install radars in training ranges. However, solutions such as using sophisticated jamming simulators are also explored. Jamming simulators are meant to really affect radio communications or other equipment that use electromagnetic waves.

Experts claim, however, that the issue is not technological, but more related to human nature, as the major is brought by the human factor, and how the electronic war is perceived and addressed, because, “too often, jamming and other threats are “sprinkled” on top of an exercise for flavor, without being allowed to stop the units involved from doing what they’re trying to do”.

Some lessons

Although there are few details on the electronic warfare actions conducted in Donbass, the available information is enough to come like a cold shower for the specialists when it comes to a possible armed confrontation with a force of similar technological level. In fact, it is only a return to the Clausewitzian approach, after the unconventional warfare journey, developed within the Global War on Terror. Without minimizing the terrorist threat, the perspective of an armed conventional conflict in Europe cannot be simply ignored, and recent developments in the international security environment are highlighting this perspective.

Among the current technological developments, the progress made in electronic warfare is very important because the operational space where EW is conducted, the electromagnetic spectrum, is also the environment where all armed forces operate, even if they are focused on dominating their mainstream operational space (land, maritime or air, and now the space and cyber space).

Indeed, it is necessary to restrict adversary possibilities, maintain NATO’s technological superiority, and it is also necessary for everyone to develop their own technology, especially  in AI field, already identified as a crucial future avenue for development.

Obviously, jamming cannot be neglected in own force exercises just because it is jeopardizing other servicemen training goals. As a US STRATCOM officer stated, “you’re going to face those conditions and (you cannot) wish it away … Russia’s not going to turn off the jamming!”.