Russia’s adventures in Ukraine and then in Syria have largely been made possible by Moscow’s unwavering commitment to using electronic warfare (EW) to its advantage.
It is becoming quite a common theme for the drones flown by the international conflict-monitoring group Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to experience problems. Every time they enter the southeastern parts of Ukraine, the drones bump into the same problem: on-the-ground Russian troops jam them into virtual blindness.
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However, all this should not come as a huge surprise considering that for years, the Russian army has been performing extensive research on making full use of EW when it comes to having the edge over the enemy. Equipment such as the Krasukha04, which jams radar and aircraft, has been used perfectly during operations in Ukraine and Syria, leading American military officials to admit that they’re scrambling to catch up with the Russians.
According to the commander of U.S. Army units in Europe, Lt. General Ben Hodges, Russia’s EW capabilities in Ukraine are “eye-watering,” while Ronald Pontius, deputy to Army Cyber Command Chief Lt. Gen. Edward Cardon, once said, “You can’t but come to the conclusion that we’re not making progress at the pace the threat demands.”
Supreme electronic warfare capabilities
Russia has shown off its electronic warfare capabilities since the onset of its incursion into Crimea in the spring of 2014. Just hours after Russian EW equipment crossed the Ukrainian border, Ukrainian troops began to find that they could not use their radios and phones for hours at a time. Moreover, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has kept reporting that every single drone that has been observing the conflict in eastern Ukraine, has been “subjected to military grade GPS jamming.”
The U.S., for its part, is trying to bring its electronic warfare capabilities to the forefront under the leadership of Col. Jeffrey Church, who is the Army’s chief of electronic warfare. However, it is not going to be a very easy task considering the fact that falling budgets and a clear lack of EW equipment is a serious challenge. Moreover, Church has revealed that he has only been able to train a few hundred soldiers, which is a very small amount compared to the EW forces boasted by both Russia and China.
“They have companies, they have battalions, they have brigades that are dedicated to the electronic warfare mission,” Church said in an interview with Foreign Policy. Those units are deploying “with specific electronic warfare equipment, with specific electronic warfare chains of command,” he said.
U.S. coming up short on the EW front
As things stand, the U.S. Army’s EW mission has only 813 soldiers, which isn’t a great number, considering the fact that both Russia and China boast a much bigger force than this. Moreover, other army units are resolute against Church’s attempts to peel away soldiers from their ranks to join his.
This is coupled with the fact that the staffing squeeze is likely to get worse. During the peak years of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. Army had around 570,000 soldiers, but that number is going to come down to 450,000 by the end of 2017, and for the next several years, it could go below 420,000 if Washington chooses to slash the long-term budget deal in the coming months.
For now, U.S. Army battalions usually assign two soldiers for an EW mission and have to work for 24 hours in battle against sophisticated enemies. It is a tedious task, one that involves planning and coordinating with other units while also ensuring that their own jammers and advanced communication gadgets are working.
“There’s too much to do for those guys in a battalion,” Church said. “So how do you maintain in a high-intensity environment against a peer enemy?”
Over the past decade, a major chunk of the EW equipment was paid for with supplemental wartime funding accounts. Now the equipment is lying on shelves, awaiting repair and reconditioning without any budget funding to keep it up to date.
Russia and its professionalism towards electronic warfare
The case is completely opposite with Moscow where the Kremlin realizes the importance of such warfare. According to the U.S. Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office, Russia boasts a growing EW capability that’s motivated by political and military support, which is why it is able to blind or disrupt digital communications in a bid to level the playing field when it is fighting a conventional foe that is superior to its military.
Ukraine’s electronic systems have been easily jammed by Moscow’s EW prowess, and according to a senior research scientist at CAN, Dmitry Gorenburg, these attempts were never aimed at Ukraine but were aimed at a more serious adversary in the shape of NATO.
In March, Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work created an EW executive committee led by Frank Kendall, who is the undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics. According to the committee, the Defense Department has “lost focus on electronic warfare at the programmatic and strategic level.”
For now, the Army is playing a catch-up game in order to integrate EW capability to its offensive apparatus. Church has emphasized the importance of soldiers training for new kinds of wars in light of recent events that have shown Russia’s EW capabilities to be miles ahead of Washington’s. Indeed, it is high time for the United States military to start thinking out of the box if it really wants to make any sort of headway in improving its EW capabilities because as things stand, the EW arsenal it has is not enough to counter the capabilities of the likes of Russia and China have at their disposal.