Russian Battlefield Awareness and Information Dominance: Improved Capabilities and Future Challenges

Story Stream
recent articles

The Russian military is developing the doctrine and capabilities for gaining and contesting battlefield awareness that will pose a significant challenge to U.S. forces in any future conflict with Russia. The military’s focus on information dominance extends from a broader belief among Russian leadership that information confrontation is one of the fundamental ways in which states compete. While the Russian military has always been adept at bringing tremendous firepower to bear during combat operations, it has also been a brawler, needing to get in contact with its opponent before being able to fight.

Taking a hint from U.S. technological advances and combat operations, Russian military thinkers have developed concepts they believe form the basis of modern warfare. One of the most important ones to develop is mastering information and seeking information dominance in the battlespace. The Russian military had made great strides in its ability to see, integrate, think, and decide faster on the modern battlefield. In any potential future conflict with Russia, U.S. and NATO forces will have to contend with a force that has vastly improved its situational awareness and ability to contest the awareness of its adversaries.

Information Dominance

It is difficult to understate the importance Russian political and military leadership places on mastering information. In 2012, Russian leadership added information to its list instruments for protecting the Russian state, placing it on the same level as military, political, and economic instruments and signaling its belief that information plays a pivotal role in how states interact and compete on the world stage. In concert with this belief in the importance of information, the Russian government has invested in capabilities, training, and doctrine—tested in combat—in an effort to achieve information dominance in both peace and conflict.

In Russia strategy, information confrontation falls into two categories: psychological and technical. The psychological aspect of information confrontation targets the very foundation of a society, both its domestic and military populations. At this level, competition focuses on undermining the targeted state’s  institutions and belief systems This would include the now well-known misuse of social media in an effort to sway a targeted country’s domestic opinions on particular subjects or increase that country’s societal divisions. Examples include the use of false social media accounts to further divide the Spanish population over Catalonian independence and the targeting of Sweden’s population in an effort to dissuade positive views of NATO membership.

Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces – First Deputy Defence Minister Valery Gerasimov (left) and Deputy Defence Minister Yury Borisov before the meeting with Defence Ministry senior officials. (President of Russia Website)

The technological side of information confrontation involves any platform or capability that can collect, protect, distribute, disable, and destroy collection and management capabilities. For Russian forces this means developing faster, more networked means for collecting and using information on the battlefield and denying that ability to its adversaries. Russia is keen to utilize emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning for contesting information space. For example, former Deputy Defense Minister Borisov actually stated in March 2018 that artificial intelligence would be necessary for Russia to more effectively contest the information environment and win in cyber wars.

Intellectually, the dialog of Russian strategists on information confrontation is driven by a perception of U.S. information dominance. These strategists are quick to reference previous conflicts such as Iraq, the bombing campaign in the Balkans that led to the early 1990s dissolution of the Yugoslav republic, and others wherein the U.S. purportedly staged overt and covert information operations to gain popular international support to legitimate regime change. While observing U.S. military operations abroad, Russian strategists also absorbed the emerging U.S. literature and thinking on network-centric warfare, deeply influencing Russian perceptions of modern warfare and affecting defense procurements. Russian military strategists are also intellectually familiar with the U.S.-initiated conversation on information warfare. For example, a number of articles in Military Thought speak to the need to create disorganization among an adversary’s forces in order to frustrate the decision-making process, creating time and space advantages for Russian forces.

The goal of Russian information confrontation is to convince an adversary war is not in their interest. Much of this effort lies in the period before war, utilizing psychological tools of information confrontation. Should that fail, in times of heightened tensions and potential conflict, the Russian intelligence and military infrastructure would seek to undermine its adversary’s domestic confidence in the the moral credibility of any conflict with Russia, weakening the resolve of both political and military entities all the while preparing a contested information environment on the battlefield should outright conflict ensue.

Battlefield Awareness

Since the 2008 Georgia War, the Russian military has vastly improved its ability to gain and maintain situational awareness of the battlespace. With greater access to space-based information, unmanned aerial vehicles, airborne reconnaissance systems, command and control systems, and unparalleled developments in electronic warfare, the Russian military is equipped to detect, track, and influence developments across the battlefield.

GLONASS Logo (Wikimedia)

The Russian military is currently regaining its ability to use space-based information after the precipitous fall in space assets that followed the end of the Cold War. The Russian Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS) now has the requisite 24 satellites to provide the Russian military with global coverage. In addition to navigational satellites, Russia is increasing its optical, electronic intelligence, data relay, and remote sensing satellite constellations. Unlike the Georgia War, where Russian pilots often used U.S. Global Positioning System receivers, Russian military forces in Syria are benefiting from their own operational Russian Global Navigation Satellite System to give them greater situational awareness and greater targeting accuracy, leading to much more effective military operations. Additionally, in anticipation of contested space-based information, Russian defense manufacturers are including redundant navigation systems in platforms; for example, drones and individual soldier systems can now provide capability should  the Russian Global Navigation Satellite System be disrupted.

The burgeoning fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles also provides a critical source of battlefield awareness for Russia’s military. Today, Russia has more than 2100 unmanned aerial vehicles throughout its services, fielding 40 unmanned aerial vehicle regiments across the country’s military districts, according to the Ministry of Defense’s General Staff. Moreover, starting in 2019, under the defense procurement plan, the Russian military will obtain  more than 300 short-range unmanned aerial vehicles annually.

Most Russian military drones are unarmed, lightweight, short-ranged, and relatively inexpensive. The workhorse of the Russian unmanned aerial vehicle fleet today is a domestically-produced Orlan-10, with a range of up to 120 km, forming nearly half of Russia’s unmanned aerial vehicles. Russia’s longest-ranged unmanned aerial vehicle is a Forpost, with a range of up to 250 km. That said, the country’s military-industrial complex is quickly working on a range of armed, mid-to-long range unmanned aerial vehicles that could enter service in 2019-2020. Although drones have primarily been used to support land-based targeting, the Russian military is developing drones for use in a number of different missions. For example, the Forpost unmanned aerial vehicle has been tested as a surveillance and targeting platform for ship-based anti-ship missiles such as the Kalibr and Yakhont cruise missiles. Other examples include unmanned aerial vehicle support to the security of Russia’s mobile Strategic Missiles Forces and to the monitoring conditions at sea.

Russian experiences during the Syria campaign support its efforts in fielding unmanned platforms. The  Russian Ministry of Defense reports its drones have flown at least 23,000 sorties and logged 140,000 hours supporting intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and target acquisition missions, far exceeding the number of sorties flown by manned aircraft in that campaign. Specifically, Russian unmanned systems were used for reconnoitering targets for airstrikes, assessing results, and assisting Syrian artillery with target designation. While Russia may lag behind other powers such as the United States, Israel, and China in developing long-range combat unmanned aerial platforms, Moscow has proven adaptable and flexible in using its existing capabilities.

Russian A-50U (War is Boring)

The Russian military is also upgrading and making advances in its airborne reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft. For example, the A-50 Mainstay early warning and control aircraft, developed and deployed during the 1980s and 190s, has been upgraded to the A-50U and seen service in Syria. The A-50U includes a host of new systems enabling it to, among other things, double the number of targets it can track and increase its effective operational tracking range. Additionally, the Russian Air Force is developing the A-100 airborne early warning and control aircraft, which will feature completely new systems, as a replacement for the A-50.

Command and Control

A key aspect of gaining and maintaining an advantage in conflict is the ability to integrate and operationalize the battlefield awareness mentioned above. The Russian military is fielding various digital, automated, and unified command systems designed to better integrate battlefield information from the individual soldier up to the national command. This is in stark contrast to the Soviet military where the flow and distribution of information was constrained to centralized command and control hubs. One example of a system that enables greater command and control is the Strelets tactical reconnaissance system that allows the sharing of individual information with both higher commands as well as air and artillery assets. Coupled with the SVP-24 Gefest targeting system, Russian troops in Syria are reporting greatly increased speed and accuracy when engaging adversary forces. Russia’s airborne assault troops served as the vanguard in fielding these new systems with its Andromeda-D system designed to integrate information from multiple domains.

Regular Russian Ground Forces are now on the verge of getting their own tactical level—division to platoon—automated command and control system. Commonly referred to as Sozvezdie after its producer, Sozvezdie features some eleven subsystems for coordinating communications and orders, electronic warfare, artillery, air defense, engineering, and logistics. These systems enable the sharing of information across multiple domains and echelons, making the speed of decision much more reliant on individual decision making and less on the technological challenge of information integration.

Contesting the Battlespace

Given the central role information plays in Russian conceptions of modern warfare, the Russian military is developing capabilities to deny its adversaries the ability to achieve information dominance. Among the various domains in which one can contest information superiority, the Russian military has made the most advances in the field of electronic warfare.

Over the past two decades, the country’s defense industry has developed, tested, and fielded dozens of electronic warfare systems that seek to disrupt, interfere with, and suppress a wide range of adversary land-, air-, and space-based communications and electronic signals. These Russian technologies work at various distances and target signals emitted and used by aircraft, cruise missiles, radars, rockets, and unmanned aerial vehicles. For example, the Russian military is currently fielding the Palantin electronic warfare system in Russia’s Western Military District opposite Europe. This system performs multiple functions and is designed not only to suppress an adversary’s communications, but also to serve as an electronic intelligence platform. In addition, Palantin is capable of networking other electronic warfare platforms, increasing their efficiency and capability.

Syria has provided a key testing ground for the Russian military, which fielded approximately 200 different military systems and technologies there, and this is especially true for its electronic warfare platforms. The Russian military has deployed systems, such as the Krasuha S-4, that seek to counter unmanned aerial vehicles, deny Global Positioning System signals, interfere with radar systems, and corrupt communications,  all while protecting the Russian military's information environment. Russia’s electronic warfare presence in Syria led the Commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, to comment that the electronic warfare environment in Syria was the most aggressive seen from U.S. adversaries.

Most recently, the Russian political and military leadership may have used advanced electronic warfare capabilities to signal its contempt for U.S. and NATO exercises. During NATO’s Trident Juncture exercise in October of 2018, the governments of Finland and Norway accused Russia of jamming Global Positioning System signals during the exercise, affecting the civilian airspace over the region—a capability certainly available to Russia given the proximity of its forces in Murmansk.


The Russian military is making significant advancements fielding and testing technologies that enable it to better understand and influence the emerging battlefield environment and is currently battle testing these capabilities in Syria. Given the fundamental importance the Russian political and military leadership ascribe to information dominance, it will continue to test, experiment, and evaluate an ever-growing set of technologies seeking to counter Western hi-tech dominance and combat awareness capabilities. Any potential conflict with Moscow will feature a military that is better able to understand, process, and contest the battlespace information environment, posing significant challenges for U.S. and allied forces.

Jeff Edmonds and Samuel Bendett are analysts with the Center for Naval Analyses. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not represent the official position of the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.

Show comments Hide Comments