Ukrainian forces are under heavy assault by Russian drones and ground systems equipped with jammers and direction finding technology honed to sniff out Ukrainian military positions — a near-peer battle offering lessons learned for American forces, and military forces around the world.
Modern warfare is rapidly changing, it’s a game of advanced technology. And those that are left behind will suffer the consequences.
Speaking at a symposium for the Association of Old Crows — an electronic warfare nonprofit — Col. Ivan Pavlenko, deputy chief of combat support units of Joint Staff Armed Forces of Ukraine, told audience members that Ukraine had lost nearly 100 drones to Russian electronic attacks on navigation systems through a tactic known as GPS spoofing, the Military Times reported.
Russia has also been “really effective” at finding and jamming Ukrainian counter artillery batteries, Pavlenko said. Russian forces will blind the radar systems and then shell Ukrainian forces, he explained.
He described Russian suppression of Ukraine’s trunked Motorola radio communications as “highly active.” Russian forces also managed to infect a radio repeater — a system that helps boost two-way radio communications longer distances — with a virus, according to Pavlenko.
Russian forces are also employing drones armed with direction finding technology and receivers to track down and locate Ukrainian forces on the ground, the Military Times reported.
Russia also has the ability to jam smartphones and GSM cellular networks at a depth of 20 miles, Pavlenko detailed. Once in the smartphone, Russia can steal information or locate a position, he explained.
Ukrainian forces are now awash with experience fighting through and exploiting the electromagnetic spectrum. While the US has provided training and equipment to Ukraine, its forces have largely watched the battle from the sidelines taking notes in preparation for a larger conflict.
For the past two decades, American troops have been embroiled in low-tech counterinsurgency conflicts where the electromagnetic spectrum has been dominated by the US.
Seamless communications and access to GPS navigation have been the norm for American troops, but the Ukraine battlefield is a testament that American forces can no longer maintain preconceived notions that their forces will control and operate smoothly in the future.
Used to operating from large built-up bases, US forces will now need to learn how to mask and hide both their visible and electromagnetic signature.
“We have to continue to train to minimize our signatures, both from an electromagnetic perspective, and from the physical, visual and audible observation perspective,” Schreffler explained.
“Camouflage and cover and concealment matter, and when any adversary is looking at you with their own small unmanned aerial systems, or their aircraft … your Marines have to be good at skills Marines always have to be good at,” he said.
Meanwhile, according to Lt. Col. Matthew Poole, a Marine working at US Strategic Command, US troops have forgotten basic lessons of electronic warfare, and are not being forced to relearn them because training exercises are unrealistically easy, Breaking Defense reported.
Even when electronic warfare specialists are allowed to disrupt a unit’s radios and radar, often to paralyzing effect, they’re typically told to knock it off so training can continue as normal.
“We’ve got to stop wishing it away,” said Lt. Col. Poole “We’ve got to stop willfully ignoring the fact that the bad guys have jammers too.”
If you look at the trends over time from one wargame to the next, “we are actually improving at a slower rate than we’re finding new problems,” added Lt. Col. Gary Lyke, an Army officer also at STRATCOM, which has the responsibility — but little of the authority — to improve EW, Breaking Defense said.
During exercises, troops keep their cellphones on, giving away their precise location. Units consistently forget such basics as having backup plans in case their primary communications get jammed — a principle called PACE, for Primary / Alternative / Contingency / Emergency — and even when someone does switch to the backup channels, the people they need to talk to often forget to listen to them.
“It’s a simple thing,” Lyke said. “We absolutely suck at it.”
A real adversary like Russia or China would exploit such failings mercilessly. One reason troops are allowed not to suffer is that electronic warfare is often strictly limited in power to avoid violating FCC regulations so it doesn’t interfere with nearby civilian transmissions, Lyke said.
For example a 1,000-watt jammer might be dialed down to 50. Another is that EW is often limited in time to only a brief part of a multi-day exercise, he said, “Sometimes two hours; sometimes as small as 10 minutes.”
Overall, he said, the scenarios used in training come nowhere near the real threat troops would face from a sophisticated adversary.