Analyzing the Russian Army’s electronic warfare capabilities in its invasion of Ukraine

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Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in Armada International, written by Dr Thomas Withington, and is reprinted with permission. Original article can be found here.

On February 24, Russia invaded Ukraine. As of the time of writing (week beginning 28th February) hostilities are continuing between Russian and Ukrainian forces. To date, the invasion has involved elements of Russia’s army, navy and air force. This article focuses on Russian Army Electronic Warfare (EW) efforts at operational and tactical levels so far.

Armada has analysed several sources regarding the Russian Army’s order-of-battle in the Ukraine Theatre of Operations. As of March 3, analysis by Rochan Consulting’s Ukraine Conflict Monitor says that four of Russia’s Military Districts (Western/WMD, Southern/SMD, Eastern/EMD and Central/CMD) are committed to the war. This is in addition to the Black Sea Fleet. The WMD appears to have deployed the 1st Guards Tank Army, 6th Combined Arms Army (CAA) and 20th CAA. The SMD has the 8th, 49th and 58th CAAs in theatre, alongside the EMD’s 29th, 35th and 36th. The CMD has deployed the 2nd Guards and 41st CAA. Finally, the Black Sea Fleet has deployed the 22nd Army Corps.

The Russian Army and Electronic Warfare

Russian Army EW doctrine focuses on detected and attacking radio transmissions in frequencies of three megahertz/MHz to six gigahertz/GHz. In addition, the doctrine stresses electronically attacking hostile airborne radars. The latter are targeted by jammers covering frequency bands of one gigahertz up to 18GHz. Jamming airborne radars is an important part of Russian EW doctrine. Military aircraft use X-band radars (8.5GHz to 10.68GHz) to detect targets in the air, on the ground and at sea. These radars provide fire control for air-to-air and air-to-surface weapons. Russian Army logic is to protect deployments and targets on the ground by jamming airborne radars to deprive military aircraft of fire control information.

Beyond airborne radars, Russian Army EW doctrine prioritises detecting and jamming enemy military radios. Military radios use High Frequency (HF: three megahertz to 300MHz), and Very/Ultra High Frequency (V/UHF: 30MHz to three gigahertz) signals for Command and Control (C2). Russian Army EW strives to attack hostile military radio networks to deprive the enemy of C2 and situational awareness. The desired result is for enemy C2 to become badly coordinated, if not impossible. If enemy radio networks are attacked, hostile unit commanders cannot share their situation with higher echelons. Headquarters are thus deprived a reliable, real-time picture of what is happening in the battle. Attacking these networks has a secondary but equally important benefit. It makes it difficult for commanders to distribute orders to subordinate units based on the prevailing situation. To summarise, land EW prevents enemy commanders from accurately reading the battle and responding accordingly.

Like all land forces, the Russian Army uses its EW systems to detect and intercept hostile radio transmissions so they can be exploited for intelligence. Every land forces unit from an infantry squad upwards uses radios. Almost any vehicle from main battle tanks to surface-to-air missile units supporting the manoeuvre force also needs radios as do deployed headquarters. Detect and locate these radio transmissions and you can detect and locate these units, vehicles and headquarters making them. This information can provide real time details of where hostile units are at any moment. It is easy to see how useful this is from a targeting point of view when manoeuvring.

A Russian Army RB-341V Leer-3 systems seen here in convoy in the Ukrainian theatre of operations. This system is used for operational-level cellphone and V/UHF jamming.

It may also be possible to decrypt the opposing force’s radio traffic which will invariably have some measures in place to stop eavesdropping. These measures are known in EW jargon as COMSEC/TRANSEC. (Communications/Transmission Security). If they can be cracked it maybe possible for this radio traffic to be exploited for intelligence. This could yield important information on hostile intentions, troop movements and the enemy force’s situation. Army EW is a compromise. On one hand, there is an imperative to attack hostile radio communications to deprive the enemy of C2 and situational awareness. On the other, there maybe an imperative to leave radio communications untouched. This will let hostile radio networks be exploited for intelligence.

Given the frequencies that Russian Army EW capabilities cover, they can potentially be used to attack civilian radio transmissions. The military are not the only users of HF and V/UHF radio. Cellphone networks, broadcasting, satellite communications, first responder radio and air traffic control all rely on V/UHF radio. GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite Signal) navigation and timing signals use UHF transmissions of 1.1GHz to 1.6GHz. Whereas military radio and GNSS signals are protected using COMSEC/TRANSEC techniques like encryption, this is not always the case with civilian radio traffic. As such, it may be targeted deliberately by Russian Army EW. This may prevent cellphone networks or civilian GNSS signals being used by the military. It may also be done as part of a wider information warfare strategy. For example, enemy media outlets may find their radio or television broadcasting jammed. This may be done to demoralise the population. Likewise, HF radio may be jammed. Amateur radio enthusiasts, known as ‘radio hams’, use high frequency radio for their hobby. They may find their communications come under attack both as a side effect of HF jamming and to prevent amateur radio being used to assist the military.

The Russian Army’s EW Order of Battle

The Russian Army deploys its EW assets at the operational and tactical levels. Operational level EW units are organised into EW brigades, battalions and companies. Each have distinct tasks supporting different levels of war.

The EW Brigades are independent army units providing operational/strategic electronic warfare to their parent military district. As well as assisting the land battle, these units assist Russian ground-based air defence. This also seems to be the case for the military districts’ Independent EW Battalions. Tactical electronic warfare is provided by the EW Companies equipping Russian Army manoeuvre formations.

A typical Independent EW Brigade will perform electronic warfare over a large part of the theatre of operations. It appears they are tasked with jamming hostile airborne radar, cellphone networks and HF radio communications. Details of the EW systems comprising an Independent EW Brigade are listed in the table below:

SystemRoleEstimated Frequency Coverage
1 x Murmansk-BNGathers Communications Intelligence (COMINT) and performs Communications Jamming (COMJAM) on HF radio3MHz – 30MHz
1 x RB-341V Leer-3Cellphone and general V/UHF COMINT/COMJAM30MHz – 3GHz
1 x IL269 Krasukha-2.0Jamming of airborne radar1GHz – 2GHz
1 x 1RL257 Krasukha-C4Jamming of airborne radar8.5GHz – 18GHz
1 x 1L267 Moskva-1COMINT/Passive Radar30MHz – 18GHz

Russian Army manoeuvre units like motorised rifle regiments, brigades and divisions and tank brigades are sometimes furnished with an attendant EW Company. Open sources state that not all manoeuvre formations have organic EW companies. Where they are absent, it is assumed that these formations must rely on EW provision from the Independent EW Brigades and Battalions at the military district level. EW companies provide electronic warfare support at the tactical level. This is to help the manoeuvre unit meet its tactical objective. Russian Army EW companies deploy large quantities of systems covering disparate wavebands. The order of battle of a typical Russian EW Company is detailed below:

SystemRoleEstimated Frequency Coverage
1 x RP-330KPKEW Company C2Not Applicable
1 x R-330KEW Company C2Not Applicable
2 x R-325UMVHF COMINT/COMJAM1.5MHz – 30MHz
2 x R-378BHF COMINT/COMJAM1.5MHz – 30MHz
2 x R-330BVHF COMINT/COMJAM30MHz – 100MHz
1 x R-330ZGNSS Jamming and general V/UHF COMINT/COMJAM100MHz – 2GHz
2 x SPR-2/RTUT-BRadio-activated weapons fuse jamming95MHz – 420MHz
21 x RP-377U/UVV/UHF COMJAM30MHz – 3GHz
2 x R-934BVHF airborne radio COMJAM20MHz – 2GHz

Some of the systems used by the Russian Army’s EW brigades and companies are vehicle mounted. Others like the RP-377U/UV are housed in a backpack. Apart from the RP-377U/UV systems, it is thought that Russian Army EW systems can only be used when stationary. This could mean they cannot advance alongside the manoeuvre force. On the other hand, they could provide an umbrella of EW coverage over large parts of the theatre (EW Brigade) or the brigade, division or regiment (EW Company).

Confusingly, Russian order-of-battle information lumps some of these systems together as a single system or ‘complex’. For example, the Borisoglebsk-2 HF/VHF COMINT/COMJAM system includes five distinct components. These include the R-330KPK C2 system, the R-378B, R-330B, R-934B and R-325U. The number of these latter four systems in an EW Company can be scaled up or down according to tactical requirements. Our table above includes a Borisoglebsk-2 system at its full strength with a single C2 system and two each of the COMINT/COMJAM systems. The graphic below illustrates the approximate COMINT and COMJAM coverage that six of the Borisoglebsk-2’s jammers could cover.

This graphic shows the approximate area of coverage against ground-based emitters which could be covered by six of the Borisoglebsk-2’s jammers.

For example, each jammer could cover a surface area of approximately 907 square kilometres (350 square miles). As we have illustrated in our graphic above, six Borisoglebsk-2 jammers could potentially detect and jam ground-based radios across a 5,442 square kilometre (2,101 square mile) area. However, we should stress that this is by no means an exact figure. Also, military radios and other emitters like ground-based military radars will use COMSEC/TRANSEC measures and protected waveforms as a riposte. Nonetheless, Armada has learned that the R-330B and R-934B components may have some potential jamming frequency-hopping VHF radios performing up to 300 hops per second. The R-378B and R-325U are thought to be capable of jamming frequency-hopping HF transmissions at up to 30 hops-per-second. The R-330KPK C2 system can handle up to 30 jamming tasks simultaneously.

Detection and jamming ranges expand at the operational level when using Uninhabited Aerial Vehicle (UAV) based EW systems like the RB-341V Leer-3. The Orlan-10 UAVs equipping the system have a maximum altitude of 16,404ft (5,000m). This lets them cover an area of 266,582 square kilometres (102,928 square miles).

The Story So Far

Armada assesses that the Russian Army may have deployed up to six Independent EW Brigades, three Independent EW Battalions and two EW companies to the Ukraine Theatre. We believe these may include the following units:

Military DistrictIndependent EW BrigadeIndependent EW BattalionArmy FormationEW Company
Western15th16th49th328th1st Guard Tank ArmyNIL
 6th CAA511th EW Company (part of the 138th Guards Motorised Rifle Brigade)
20th CAANIL
Southern19thNIL8th CAANIL
 49th CAANIL
58th CAA141st EW Company (part of 136th Independent Guards Motorised Rifle Regiment)
Eastern17thIndependent EW Battalion29th CAANIL
 35th CAANIL
36th CAANIL
Central18thNIL2nd Guards Tank ArmyNIL
 41st Guards Tank ArmyNIL
Black Sea Fleet475thNIL22nd Army CorpsNIL

The graphic below illustrates the hypothetical land area these EW brigades, battalions and companies could cover based on our estimations of their jamming and detection footprints, and estimated locations of their parent CAAs as of March 3.

Definitive information on the effectiveness of these units is scant. Nonetheless, some tentative conclusions can be drawn. On February 25, CNBC quoted an unnamed US defence official who said “we do not believe that the Russians have not employed the full scope of their electronic warfare capabilities, and it is not clear exactly why.”

This succinct summary underlines some surprising aspects of the conflict’s EW dimension to date. At first blush, it seems that the civilian world has not suffered as much as feared by Russian Army EW. There does not appear to have been any sustained efforts to deny Ukraine writ large access to the radio spectrum. Media satellite transmissions from Ukraine to the outside world appear to continue uninterrupted. Cellphone video footage sent from Ukraine indicates that local telecommunications networks have largely continued as before. Several Armada sources in Ukraine said their cellphone coverage has remained mostly unaffected. The Russian Army’s primary system targeting cellphone networks is the RB-341V Leer-3. Regardless of whether it has been used sporadically or in a sustained fashion, it seems to have had little effect so far. It is possible that Russian Army COMINT cadres want to leave cellphone coverage unjammed to exploit any cellphone traffic. Given how effective cellphones are in helping organise armed resistance it is hard to see why the army has left this alone. Perhaps Russian communications jamming technology is not as effective as previously thought?

Pictures surfaces on social media on 28th February of captured civilian handheld V/UHF radios reportedly used by Russian troops. Their possible use seems to indicate lackadaisical V/UHF jamming by Russian EW units.

It is noteworthy that pictures circulated on social media on 28th February showed what appeared to be captured civilian V/UHF handheld radios. These were said to have been captured from Russian troops. There was some speculation that these radios were manufactured in the People’s Republic of China. It is a safe bet that these radios are not at the leading edge of telecommunications technology. As such, they should be very easy to jam. The use by Russian forward units of such basic technology raises some interesting questions, not least about the health of Russian Army tactical communications. These questions will be dealt with in later articles. From an EW perspective, it may illustrate lacklustre jamming performance. Such rudimentary radios should be a piece of cake to jam. Anecdotal evidence from Russia’s previous intervention in Ukraine from 2014 divulged that electromagnetic fratricide was rife. Russian V/UHF jamming regularly shut down the radio communications of Russian troops in range of the jammer. Surely troops using would find these radios all but useless if V/UHF jamming was supporting their manoeuvre. Russian doctrine stresses EW as an integral part of manoeuvre. There is an apocryphal adage that summarises Russian Army doctrine; “attrit a third, jam a third and the remain third will collapse.” This use of civilian standard V/UHF communications seems to suggest that either V/UHF jamming is not being used, being used sporadically and/or is useless.

There has been speculation that the Russian Army is husbanding its EW capabilities for use later in the conflict. That is possible but seems counterintuitive. Surely the manoeuvre force would want to use the full panoply of its EW capabilities during the initial invasion, arguably the riskiest part of the operation? This is when depriving Russia’s adversaries of radio communications networks and airborne radar would be an absolute priority? Does this mean that Russian Army EW systems and personnel are struggling? It may mean that army commanders have little confidence in their EW abilities and are loath to rely on them. Likewise, are these systems unreliable or have poor levels of maintenance which degrades their efficacy?

This screen capture from the FlightRadar24 website clearly shows that aircraft overflying Ukraine and Belarus are keeping their transponders switched off.

Some people on social media suspected that the loss of coverage of Ukrainian territory on aviation tracking websites like flightradar24 was the result of Russian GNSS jamming. This seems unlikely. Ukrainian civilian aircraft rapidly cleared from Ukrainian skies as the invasion unfolded. Civilian and military aircraft use transponders to share information with air traffic controllers. Transponders share details of the aircraft’s identity and flight characteristics. This can be supplemented with information from the aircraft’s GNSS systems.

However, it seems that GNSS signals over Ukraine were not jammed en masse. Transponder information from other aircraft flying near Ukraine’s borders was unaffected. Large-scale, theatre-level GNSS jamming would have almost certainly spread beyond Ukraine’s borders. What appears to have happened is that Ukrainian and Russian military aircraft flying over Ukraine kept their transponders switched off. This is standard wartime procedure. If you detect a transponder’s transmissions you can determine an aircraft’s location. This risks the aircraft being found and engaged by fighters or surface-to-air weapons.

Russia does have form jamming GNSS transmissions. This has been noted during the country’s deployment to Syria. As this month’s Spectrum SitRep article notes, the Israeli government recently complained to its Russian counterpart about GNSS jamming emanating from Syria. This was affecting civilian air traffic over Israel.

Conclusions

So far, the Russian Army’s electronic warfare acumen seems a shadow of its former self. As Armada reported in December 2019, it acquitted itself well during Russia’s first invasion. Russian Army EW continued to cause problems for the Ukrainian military in the following years. The stubborn resistance of the Ukrainian Army and population in general indicates it is less effective this time around. Russian Army EW equipment maybe under-performing and may not have the confidence of army commanders. This can only be good news for Ukraine as it fights tenaciously to repulse Russia’s invasion.

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