Ukrainian Officer Details Russian Electronic Warfare Tactics Including Radio "Virus"

The officer said that sanctions that have targeted Russian made electronic warfare systems that use foreign-made components may be working.

A Russian Krasukha-2 electronic warfare system.
Vitaly Kuzmin

A Ukranian military officer has offered new insights into the scale and scope of Russian electronic and cyber warfare capabilities, including details on GPS jamming and spoofing tactics, and how they have evolved since a conflict erupted between the two countries more than five years ago. He also said that Russia's capacity to launch some types of attacks may be waning to a degree thanks to American and other international sanctions that have made it difficult for the Kremlin to source key components for these systems.

Ukrainian Colonel Ivan Pavlenko offered this information during a presentation at the 56th Annual Association of Old Crows International Symposium and Convention in Washington, D.C., as well as on the sidelines of that event, on Oct. 29, 2019. Pavlenko is presently the Deputy Chief of Combat Support Units of the Joint Forces Headquarters of the Joint Staff Armed Forces of Ukraine, but between 2009 and 2017 he had served as the Chief of the Electronic Protection Section in the Electronic Warfare Department of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

It is well known that Russian electronic warfare capabilities have been a major factor in the fighting in Ukraine's eastern Donbass region since the war there erupted in March 2014. A month earlier, the Kremlin had launched an operation to seize control of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine, as well.

Russian-backed separatists in Donbass have received extensive support from the Kremlin, including reinforcements in the form of regular Russian military units with heavy armor and artillery. Russia's forces have also employed a variety of very capable electronic warfare systems to jam and intercept communications signals, jam and spoof GPS receivers, and tap into cellular networks and hack cell phones.

Vitaly Kuzmin

A Russian R-330Zh Zhitel electronic warfare system, which is used to jam cellular satellite communications and is among the many electronic warfare platfroms Russia has deployed to Ukraine over the years..

In the early years of the conflict, communications security was extremely difficult for Ukranian forces. In 2015, Pavlenko said that Russia had been able to engage in mass sabotage of Russian-made radios that Ukraine was using at the time by triggering some sort of kill switch, which he described as a "virus," remotely. 

This raises questions about what sort of failsafe devices Russia may be hiding inside the military equipment is sells to partners around the world, which could allow them to disable key features remotely if those countries were to turn on them for any reason. The tactic also appears to have had the secondary benefit of forcing Ukranian forces to switch to much more vulnerable commercial radios and cellular networks, which the Russians then also relentlessly attacked

"In 2014-15, Russia effectively jammed Ukrainian Motorola radios in 137-180MHz and 400-470Mhz frequency bands," Pavlenko explained, according to a Tweet from the event from AviationWeek's Defense Editor Steve Trimble. "Russians frequently target the smartphones of Ukrainian soldiers."

This is well in line with previously available public information, which has also indicated that Russia used direction-finding systems in addition to jammers to zero in on Ukranian positions and launch artillery strikes on those locations. Pavlenko said that Ukraine's increasing use of jamming resistant, frequency-hopping radios from U.S. company Harris and Turkish firm Aselsan had improved the situation. Not surprisingly, he was unable to offer more specific details about how those systems were fairing against Russian electronic attacks.

Still, Pavlenko did hint at potential limitations for the Kremlin when fighting countries using Russian-made military equipment, as well. He said that Ukrainian forces had actually experienced very little jamming targeting their satellite communications capabilities, noting that Russia and Ukraine use the same Ka-band satellites for this purpose, according to Trimble.

However, Pavlenko did not say whether or not there were any similar trends with regards to Russia's jamming of its own GLONASS satellite navigation network, which the two countries also share to a degree. He did say that there was GLONASS jamming and spoofing, as well as similar attacks on GPS systems, capabilities that have also been well documented outside of Ukraine. Underscoring how effective these attacks have been, Pavlenko said that Ukraine had lost about 100 small unmanned aircraft due to GPS jamming and spoofing between 2015 and 2017.

Russia also continues to hack into individual cellphones, with Pavlenko saying that the Russians had gotten into his phone at least twice in 2018. He also confirmed that Russia has used its ability to tap into cellular networks to send SMS text messages to Ukranian troops

These are tactics that the Kremlin has also reportedly used against NATO countries, including the United States, and allows Russia's intelligence services to both scrape potentially useful personal information and possibly insert disinformation onto these devices. The texts can also be psychological warfare tools, with past reports that some were purely insulting or threatening. Using hacked personal information, those threats could include very distressing ones directed at family members or significant others.

The Ukranian officer also offered details about how Russian electronic warfare tactics appear to be evolving. For instance, Russian forces in Ukraine have been using small unmanned aircraft with electro-optical cameras and electronic direction finders to specifically locate and then jam counter-battery radars ahead of mortar and other artillery strikes. Variant's of Russia's Orlan-10 drones, which have been employed in Ukraine, reportedly have these capabilities.

Counter-battery radars, such as the AN/TPQ-36 Firefinders that Ukraine has received from the United States or the country's own new 1L220UK, the latter of which is seen in the video below, are designed to detect and track incoming artillery rounds, providing valuable early warning so troops can try to get to cover. They can also determine the full trajectory of the rounds to help friendly forces locate enemy artillery positions. 

So, jamming counter-battery radars immediately before an artillery attack greatly reduces an opponent's ability to avoid the incoming shells or mortar bombs or launch a counterattack. Targeting those radars as part of the attack can also degrade an enemy's capacity in this regard going forward. Pavlenko said that the Russians had employed a version of this tactic against Ukraine's own jamming systems designed to bring down unmanned aircraft, too.

Still, despite Russia's extensive and capable electronic and cyber warfare systems, and the country's clear emphasis on the value of these assets in combat, Pavlenko said that Ukrainian forces had noticed a drop in GPS spoofing and jamming in particular. This trend does not appear to be linked to anything Ukraine has done and it's not clear how recent this shift may be. 

Earlier this year, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which is charged with monitoring the implementation of the so-called Minsk II agreement, which is supposed to help deescalate the conflict in Donbass, reported that there had been an increase in these types of electronic warfare attacks.

Ukranian Ministry of Defense

An official map the Ukranian Ministry of Defense released showing reported locations of Russian electronic warfare systems in Donbass between 2016 and 2018.

The Ukranian officer suggested this reflected the withdrawal of various electronic warfare units from Donbass, but it's not clear why this would have been the case. One possibility is that these forces are necessary to support other, more pressing Russian engagements, such as the ongoing conflict in Syria. The Kremlin recently struck a deal with Turkey under which Russian troops will take responsibility for patrolling a vast swath of northern Syrian territory along the Turkish border. Russia has announced plans for the deployment of additional forces to the country to support this mission. 

Russia's electronic warfare systems have also been a major component of the country's intervention in Syria, which is ostensibly focused on eliminating rebels and terrorists on behalf of the regime of dictator Bashar Al Assad. U.S. forces operating in Syria in the past have reportedly encountered extensive Russian electronic attacks, as well.

Pavlenko said that there might be another underlying reason for this reduction in Russia's electronic warfare capacity in Ukraine, sanctions. "They’re like a virus," he told Military.com's Oriana Pawlyk.

Sanctions may have made it increasingly difficult for Russia to sustain many of the systems it has in service now, which use, at least in part, components from sources outside the country. Setting up domestic supply chains for certain parts could prove to be difficult, if not impossible in some cases, and the Russians might have to develop all-new electronic warfare systems designed from the ground up to use alternative options. Western sanctions on Russia, many of which are in place over the country's involvement in the conflict in Ukraine, have also had a notable impact on Russia's economy more broadly, which, in turn, appears to have had impacts on defense spending.

All told, what kind of impact sanctions, combined with other operational demands, may have actually had on Russian electronic and cyber warfare systems, or will in the long run, remains to be seen. What is clear is that the Kremlin remains heavily invested in these capabilities, which continue to be major threats on battlefields in Ukraine and elsewhere.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com