Lessons From The Spectrum War In Ukraine
Military revolution in the 4th dimension
Although Russia deployed lots of electronic warfare equipment designed to make western precision guided munitions less accurate, “direct jamming against precision systems was rarely effective” once Ukraine began to use them.
That’s one of the conclusions in a new report from RUSI, the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies. According to the authors, much of Russian electromagnetic warfare (EW) doctrine is stuck in the past.
“It is apparent that the Russians have refined, but done little to develop beyond, Soviet systems and some of their new systems such as the Repellent complex were largely ineffective,” they write.
Similar “point defense” systems proved ineffective in Iraq during 2003 and they were always a questionable EW development pathway. Whereas the range of the jammer is short, the flight path of a rocket or shell is much longer. Jamming the GPS receiver in a precision munition only at the end of a long ballistic arc will not reduce its accuracy very much because almost all of the aiming is already done.
A more effective tactic, RUSI says, is to target the kill chain, for example through drone-signal jamming. However, this takes a lot of resources. During the second phase of the war, after withdrawing from Kyiv to refocus on the Donbas, “Russia set up EW complexes with up to 10 complexes per 20 km of frontage,” they write.
“Collectively, these complexes effectively disrupted navigation along the front, and conducted direction finding to direct artillery and electronic attack against Ukrainian aircraft and UAVs.”
The GPS receiver of an enemy gun or rocket system is also more vulnerable than the munitions it fires. “Defeating precision could be achieved by preventing a launcher from accurately determining its position, even with very small displacements.”
Written to cover the war from the initial invasion to the moment when HIMARS arrived, the report covers much more than EW. For example, they offer hard numbers on the Russian artillery advantage, explain why Russian columns got stuck in the first days, and present a coherent narrative of the Hostumel attacks — but in each example, EW shaped the outcome.
Consider the Russian ‘Khibiny’ jamming pod. It is effective, able to detect a radar source and jam it automatically. However, they are also effective against the radar systems of other Russian aircraft. “Pairs of Russian strike aircraft mounting this system have therefore had to choose between having a functional radar or EW protection,” the report explains.
Deconfliction of the spectrum is a key challenge for modern military staff. Cognitive AI and other emerging technologies will help the people managing electromagnetic spectrum operations (EMSO) in the future, but the need for people trained to the task will not change.
Indeed, they will be essential for commanders to operate at all in a conventional war, anymore.
Another aspect of contesting the EMS is pattern recognition in enemy cyber and electromagnetic activities, and the provision of advice on where there are seams in the enemy system that can be exploited. For example, wide-area jamming of navigational systems likely means that the enemy is not postured to conduct accurate fire missions. The lifting of this may indicate that UAS are about to be launched or that a fire mission is about to commence from a sector. However, this also means that friendly UAS committed to that sector can — for a time — accurately determine the location of the targets such as batteries that are fixed by virtue of their preparing to fire. Similarly, if enemy EW protection is strong, targeting the sources of emission will cause EW platforms to displace, revealing gaps in protection that can be exploited to deliver effects. All these effects, however, are limited in duration and require the necessary capabilities to all be available so that the window of opportunity can be exploited once it is identified. Understanding that EW may drive, as well as be a tool applied by, planning is key.
For the future, Russia has one primary advantage. Since their army is by far the largest component, subordinating all the other branches, they can focus once again on a single set of integrated solutions and apply them at scale.
NATO, on the other hand, has a multiplicity of national commands, all with their own components, each pursuing their own solutions to a radio spectrum that is increasingly contested and congested. Interoperability requires thousands of standards, for example.
Open standards alleviate this to a degree. A single unit, the awkwardly-acronymed JEWCS, does almost all the training and guidance across the entire alliance force. Even the terminology differs: Americans use EMSO, Europeans use EMO. Russia will not have these problems.
While the report does not delve into this issue it impinges on the authors’ observation that the “tent cities” motorized armies erect in the field are a thing of the past. Headquarters elements will have to be decentralized, dispersed, stay on the move, and rely on even more remote sensors. Success in that environment will require more radio communication tools, using more bandwidth.
The report does not focus on cyber warfare, either, though it bears mention within its 67 pages. Ukraine has become a model for resilience against cyber attacks. Furthermore, the war has demonstrated that cyber and EW are becoming integrated activities, so future dedicated EW platforms will need to be flexible as well as mobile.
EW historians will benefit from their analysis of the radar war. Ukraine began the war with an impressive number of radars, but too many points needing coverage. Skillfull deployment and decoying have blunted Russia’s numerical advantages in the air by forcing pilots to fly low, where they are vulnerable to MANPADS. Cruise missile interceptions were common in the opening days, and have reached absurd highs, because Ukraine invested in airspace defense, a decision at least as pivotal as the restoration of their army’s artillery corps after the 2014 Maidan revolution.
Perhaps the most surprising finding in the report is the deep vulnerability of Russian forces to deception campaigns as long as they are not subtle. Ukraine had to telegraph their Kherson offensive for months to stimulate a response in Moscow. Thus, Cold War legacy thinking about projecting a ‘posture’ to fool the Russians can be abandoned, the authors contend, because it turns out their military culture is not that quick on the uptake.
Like EW, this affects every link in the kill chain. Much of Russia’s tactical precision fire gets wasted on targets that have already moved. Big, expensive missiles have been used for counterbattery missions on small targets because they were available at short notice while the regular Russian fire control system is too inflexible for rapid re-tasking.
Warfare’s fourth dimension touches every activity of the modern battlefield, and artillery creates some of the hottest EW battles. By definition, an artillery war will be an electronic one.
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