We catch up with Jonas Kjellén, an analyst at Sweden’s FOI defence research institute and an expert on the Russian military, to hear his thoughts on recent Russian EW developments.
The conflict in Ukraine is ostensibly frozen following the signature of the Steinmeier Agreement on 1st October 2019 under the auspices of the German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. The governments of Russia and Ukraine signed the agreement alongside the governments of Russia’s eastern Ukrainian proxies the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic (LHR) and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Further diplomatic initiatives have been spearheaded by Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. All four met in Paris on 9th December 2019 and agreed to resume the Normandy Format talks, so called in recognition of the informal meeting of these leaders during the 75th Anniversary of Operation Overlord commemorations in Normandy, in western France.
The war’s frigid condition has not stopped the Russian Army from continuing to rotate Electronic Warfare (EW) equipment through parts of the Ukrainian theatre under Moscow’s de facto control. On 28th April the OSCE reported that its aerial surveillance efforts had spotted a trio of Russian Army EW systems near the city of Luhansk in eastern Ukraine. This an area is under the control of the Moscow-sponsored LHR. These systems included an OJSC RB-636AM2 Svet-Ku mobile communications intelligence system covering Very High Frequency (VHF: 30 megahertz/MHz to 300MHz) and Ultra High Frequency (UHF: 300MHz to three gigahertz) communications traffic. The RB-636AM2 was joined by an RB-314V Leer-3 unmanned aerial vehicle-based COMINT and Communications Jamming (COMJAM) system which can collect information on GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) wavebands of 380MHz to 1.989GHz and transmit SMS (Short Message Service) traffic on these frequencies. Finally, a Sozvezdie R-934B COMJAM system was noted as being in the same location. The R-934V covers a waveband of 100MHz to 400MHz and is principally used to perform jamming against military airborne communications.
In September 2018 Sweden’s FOI (Totalförsvarets Forskningsinstitut/Defence Research Institute) published a seminal paper entitled Russian Electronic Warfare: The Role of Electronic Warfare in the Russian Armed Forces. Written by Mr. Kjellén the report provided an interesting insight into where EW sits within Russia’s armed forces at the strategic, operational and tactical levels, and a discussion of how Russia’s army, navy and air force have used EW during the country’s involvements in the Ukrainian and Syrian civil wars since 2014 and 2015 respectively.
Mr. Kjellén believes that the key to understanding the role of EW in the Russian Army is not so much to focus on the plethora of new systems the force has received in recent years since Mr. Putin’s commencement of Russia’s military modernisation in 2010, but rather “it is the enhanced role and place of EW in Russia’s operational thinking that is important.” He says that this was illustrated by the decision of the Russian armed forces in 2009 to denote EW as a combat support capability “which means that the electromagnetic spectrum must be included when planning military operations.” Mr. Kjellén argues that “this is the most significant increase in status for Russian EW capabilities” since the Great Patriotic War.
While much of the open source analysis of Russian EW capabilities over the past decade has focused on systems and doctrines furnishing the army, Mr. Kjellén says that there has been a wholesale modernisation across the air force and navy, as well as the army: “However, most EW personnel are found in ground units and from an organisational point of view the expansion of EW capabilities is easier to track in the ground forces,” helped in no small measure by open source information shared by actors like the OSCE. He adds that while “it is very true that there are more ground-based systems” in service with the army, “it would be a mistake to assume that the ground forces arena is of a somewhat higher priority (for the Russian armed forces) when it comes to EW.”
A sense of technological superiority, argues Mr. Kjellén, is the main driver for Russian investment into electronic warfare: “EW capabilities are used to deny an adversary’s usage of the electromagnetic spectrum” as much as to protect one’s own use of it: “In Russia, EW capabilities are largely perceived as an asymmetric means to level the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO)/US technological advantage.” While the capabilities discussed above deployed to the LBR are meant to assist electronic support and electronic attack elements of the EW mission, Mr. Kjellén continues that electronic protection forms a vital part of the army’s EW posture, particularly as regards emission control and monitoring one’s own forces for “unintended emissions and assessing the efficacy of camouflage measures.”
Alongside Ukraine, the Russian armed forces have employed EW assets to support its Syrian deployment. Mr. Kjellén argues that there are some important differences regarding the use of EW in these two theatres: “The use of EW in eastern Ukraine has been one of supporting Russian-led insurgents by degrading Ukrainian materiel using the EMS.” Operations in Syria, however, have allowed Russian EW practitioners to observe Western platforms and their electromagnetic tactics vis-à-vis the US-led Operation Inherent Resolve which commenced in June 2014 against Islamic State of Iraq and Syria cadres involved in the Syrian Civil War: “Being able to study emissions from Western systems has been a golden opportunity,” Mr. Kjellén concludes: “Having the opportunity to collect such information for a long time, on a large number of modern Western systems and during real combat operations is priceless for enhancing Russian situational awareness in the electromagnetic spectrum.”
Finally, Mr. Kjellén believes that it is important to keep Russian EW capabilities in perspective: “Where Russia can go from here might be over exaggerated. Many of the new systems that have been developed and procured over the last decade largely build upon old Soviet projects that were mothballed in the early 1990s.” Yet this is no excuse for complacency: “This does not mean that the new EW systems are obsolete.” Mr. Kjellén believes that the best means for NATO to address current and future Russian EW capabilities is to ensure that its systems depending on the electromagnetic spectrum from missile guidance radars to tactical communications have the resilience to minimise the effect of Russian electronic attack. A copy of Mr. Kjellén’s report can be found here: https://www.foi.se/rest-api/report/FOI-R–4625–SE
by Dr. Thomas Withington