Stephanie Carvin is an associate professor at Carleton University, a former national security analyst, and a contributing author to the Centre for International Governance Innovation.
Shortly after Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014, Ukrainian soldiers suddenly found themselves unable to use their radios, and discovered that their cellphones would not make calls. When their phones did work, they received threatening and demoralizing messages from an unknown source. Soon, GPS systems became intermittent, and drones began to fall out of the sky. The ability to co-ordinate operations or respond to Russian actions was greatly degraded, giving the Russia-backed “separatist” forces a clear military advantage.
That these events began to occur as Russia was rolling electronic warfare (EW) equipment into occupied Ukraine is no coincidence. EW – essentially any military action that exploits the electromagnetic spectrum to provide situational awareness and create effects – is fundamentally important for militaries to control and conduct operations. Its three aspects include support (sensing the electromagnetic spectrum), protection (defence against jamming or deception), and attack (disruption, denial, degradation, destruction or spoofing). Operating from all environments, EW operations can interfere with weapons, causing them to prematurely explode with a false signal, affect guidance and defence systems and even deliver cyber-attacks in the form of malicious code. “Every modern high tech weapon system is a dud without access to spectrum,” said Jan Kallberg, a scientist at the Army Cyber Institute.
And in its 2014 conquest of Ukrainian territory, Russia demonstrated to great effect the new capabilities it was developing as part of its “New Look” military modernization program – capabilities that seemed so impressive that the Pentagon and other NATO countries took note.
So it is not surprising that Western analysts largely assumed Russia would use EW to devastating effect in a full invasion of Ukraine. Yet, like cyber, conventional military and information operations, this is not what has happened. Russia is widely seen as having underperformed in its use of EW operations, and why this is the case is largely unknown.
Accounts of the early days of the Russian invasion do make it clear that Russia did deploy its EW capabilities, which had serious consequences for Ukraine’s ability to respond to the opening salvos of the conflict. EW likely blocked missile defence systems and allowed Russian forces to take Hostomel Airport, at least temporarily.
But it’s also clear that 2022 has been very different from 2014, with Russian forces being unable to effectively use or deploy EW to achieve strategic gain. One underlying factor is surely the scale of what Russia is attempting to accomplish: the military may simply lack sufficient equipment, manpower or expertise to support such a large operation.
Moreover, the secretive nature of its invasion-planning likely gave Russia’s EW specialists very little time to prepare for operations and gather necessary detailed information. Given this, it’s possible that Russia’s EW systems may be accidentally interfering with its own communications. That Russian forces have reportedly been using Ukraine’s cellular networks to communicate also suggests they may have been forced to hold back from shutting such systems down.
The Ukrainian military also learned lessons from 2014 and prepared for scenarios with high levels of communication interruption or degradation. It’s likely that the U.S. and NATO have provided equipment that conferred resilience against some EW systems, too.
Yet the most important factor is not technological, but rather Russia’s failure to plan. Militaries that do not train and practice the way they fight will not be able to use even the most high-tech equipment effectively. A failure to engage in combined arms operations – that is, fighting in such a way that brings different military capabilities together into one efficient system – has ultimately undermined President Vladimir Putin’s goal of occupying the whole of Ukraine. If Russian officials thought their experience in Syria had provided such training, they did not anticipate the significant differences between propping up the Bashar al-Assad regime and taking over a geographically large country.
Recent improvements in Russian military performance have been mirrored by improvements in its EW operations. However, military officials still believe Russia continues to underperform, particularly when forced to adapt to changes in Ukrainian tactics. For example, while the Turkish-designed Bayraktar TB2 drones that had helped Ukraine score early victories against Russia’s tanks and armour have become more vulnerable to Russian EW, the Ukrainians have switched to delivering grenades using off-the-shelf commercial drones. Russian EW has struggled to prevent this.
In this way, the story of EW in Ukraine conflict highlights the complexity of cross-domain warfare. While we may often think of tanks, keyboards, communications and planes as having different capabilities, they are increasingly interlinked, often requiring creative and agile responses. Russia’s apparent failure to plan for this reality was a plan to fail.
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