Fields of silence and broken cycles: Russia’s electronic warfare

Electronic warfare plays a crucial strategic role for Russia’s armed forces. Samuel Cranny-Evans investigates how Russia’s electronic warfare assets support its strategy.

Alexandra Stickings: 

// Alex Giles, CCO at Iceni Labs

Electronic warfare (EW) holds a special place within the concept of operations of the Russian Ground Forces. It is referred to as radio-electronic warfare (Радиоэлектронная борьба) or REB, and it is seen as the means by which the Russian armed forces can degrade the combat systems of an opponent to such an extent that any technological superiority will be severely compromised.

Russia echelons its REB troops at two primary levels; the Motorised Rifle Brigade is provided with a company of EW troops with broad-spectrum capabilities for tactical warfare. The Army Group also includes an EW battalion with equipment and capabilities specifically targeted at the operational systems that Russian planners fear. Above that, there are the EW brigades, of which there are five, one for each of Russia’s four military districts, with two brigades in the Western Military District.

One concern that frequently features in Russian military news outputs is the massed aerospace missile attack, a phrase they abbreviate to MRAU. The MRAU is essentially the combined use of air, space, land and sea assets to deliver long-range air and missile strikes against the critical nodes of Russian manoeuvre formations as well as critical infrastructure.

Russian scholars have observed the use of these weapons and concepts in multiple conflicts and are quite sure that an MRAU would open any conflict with NATO. To guard against this, the Russian armed forces have developed and deployed a formidable array of ground-based air defences (GBAD), such as the S-400 Triumf and S-350 Vityaz surface-to-air missile systems, which can be used to engage cruise and ballistic missiles and other aerial targets.

The air defences are layered and designed to work in convergence with the efforts of Russia’s air force to attrit and degrade a NATO MRAU.

Russia’s EW brigade

This element of Russia’s air defences is well understood. However, one element that is often overlooked when painting this picture is the EW brigade and its equipment. The EW brigade is designed to provide wide-area protection of critical nodes within a Russian formation. It can be task-organised to support certain operations or have its effects combined to achieve effects against complex targets.

It is provided with the 1RL257 Krasukha-4 as well as the 1L260 Krasukha-2, two 8x8 vehicles carrying EW payloads designed to jam the operational systems of joint surveillance target attack radar system (JSTAR) aircraft such as the Northrop Grumman E-8 and airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft like the Boeing E-3 Sentry respectively.

The Krasukha-2 is used to jam S-band (2.3GHz to 2.5GHz/2.7GHz to 3.7GHz) airborne radars, and Krasukha-4 is effective against X-band and Ku-band airborne radars (8.5GHz to 10.68GHz and 13.4GHz to 14GHz/15.7GHz to 17.7GHz respectively). TASS states that Krasukha-4 specifically is intended to protect command posts, troops, GBAD systems and industrial facilities from radar reconnaissance and precision weapons. It employs broadband active jamming.

These aircraft types are important enablers of NATO airpower; the former provides ground surveillance and command and control at the theatre level. The latter is an airborne warning and command centre; together they enable and coordinate NATO airpower, and are seen as critical nodes of an MRAU campaign by Russian commanders.

Alternatively, the Krasukha-4 can be combined with the ship-borne TK-25, a system designed to detect and jam radar signals from air and ship-borne targeting systems, as well as anti-ship missiles. It was used in Syria with the former providing target detection and the latter conducting radar suppression.

// The new model Apache AH-64Es have improved sensors and lethality, and upgraded weapons systems. Credit: Norbert Neumann.

UAV-mounted systems

A system that has garnered considerable attention is RB-341V Leer-3, which is also typically assigned to an EW brigade. The Leer-3 is based on a 6x6 truck and utilises an Orlan-10 UAV, which can carry its EW payload extending its range. It reportedly has a mobile phone tower simulator built into the UAV that is designed to interact with and jam the GSM-900 and GSM-1800 mobile phone networks.

The system is capable of covering a 6km area with the ability to hijack up to 2,000 mobile phone connections at once or three separate operators. It earned notoriety in Ukraine, where it was used for various purposes including the tracking of cell phone users, distribution of fake text messages to network subscribers, and the direction of artillery fire, according to some Ukrainian news outlets.

Theatre-level jamming and interception of high frequency communications is provided by the Murmansk-BN system.

Theatre-level jamming and interception of high-frequency communications is provided by the Murmansk-BN system. Murmansk is a communications intelligence and jamming system composed of multiple vehicles and large antenna masts. It is used to provide wide-area intelligence and jamming against airborne HF signals, which are essential for communication over long distances between NATO’s airborne enablers.

It is attributed with a range of 1,000km, although some Russian sources state that 2,000km can be achieved in the ideal atmospheric conditions. A Pravda article credits the system with the ability to search over a wide area for HF emissions, as well as the ability to jam communications between aircraft, ships and satellites.

Curbing NATO’s capabilities

Comparing the capabilities of these four systems, they appear to be designed to target and impinge on the actions of NATO’s key big-wing enablers, as well as the systems that would be involved in delivering an MRAU.

When combined with the kinetic effects of Russia’s layered GBAD and the counter-air assets of the VKS, the goal would be to inflict attrition on NATO’s airpower, reduce its sortie rate and deflect and reduce the effects of its massed missile strikes.

Other EW systems would play a role in this, such as Pole-21 or R-330H Zhitel, which can be used to jam or suppress GPS. This would have two effects; degrading the accuracy of GPS-guided weapons and preventing forward targeting cells from knowing where they are.

Russia’s overall goal is to create a layered system of effects, each of which provides a bespoke function on the battlefield that is expected to degrade one of NATO’s strengths. Russian writers note that doing so should preserve Moscow’s own forces, allowing them to achieve their mission effects according to the wider context of the conflict.

// Main image: Promotional photos of the Murmansk-BN system. Credit: Sputnik Photo