Russia’s Advances in Electronic Warfare Capability
Since the reform of Russia’s Armed Forces began in late 2008, Moscow has developed a credible conventional military capability. Among the subset of capabilities over the past decade are the critically important advances in combat support offered by Electronic Warfare (EW) (see EDM, April 17, 2018). A recent review of progress in this area in Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye considers the use of EW in the Russia-Georgia conflict in August 2008 compared to its extensive usage and experimentation during Russia’s military operations in Syria. These advances are also seen in the development of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology, as well as in recent air and ground tactical exercises in the Central and Eastern military districts (MD) (Vzglyad, September 27, 2019).
Colonel (retired) Anatoly Tsyganok, a member of the Russian Center for Political-Military Studies, asserts at the outset, “To start a war without controlling the electromagnetic spectrum is tantamount to defeat”; and crucially, he adds, “The West still does not believe that in ten years, Russia’s use of Electronic Warfare equipment in the war in Georgia in 2008 and in Syria in 2018 really and radically changed the situation. Russia will not fully disclose its capabilities in conducting Electronic Warfare (offensive and defensive in nature), so that the adversary does not fully recognize its capabilities.” Tsyganok then details the somewhat limited exploitation of Russian EW assets during operations against Georgia in 2008, before turning to the obvious advances in its use in Syria. In particular he asserts that EW was not sufficiently used to suppress Georgia’s air defenses. Additionally, EW assets were not used to cover advancing forces against attack, there were insufficient numbers of jammers and they spent too little time creating jamming zones, and there was a lack of EW activity for group defense from battle formations (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, September 20).
More importantly, Tsyganok then turns to Russian EW support for combat operations in Syria, and offers interesting details on the extent of Moscow’s advances in exploiting EW. He notes the deployment to Syria, in February 2016, for a short tour of duty, of Russia’s latest intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft, the Tu-214R. The plane carries EW equipment for radio reconnaissance and radio suppression, capable of intercepting and suppressing a wide range of radio signals—from cell phones to aircraft and ground-based radars and EW systems. In addition, Il-20M1 reconnaissance planes and Su-34 fighter-bombers, when armed with the Khibiny EW complex (see EDM, June 13, 2018), can interfere with long-range radar-detection aircraft. And at an early stage in the Russian operations in Syria, an extensive electronic intelligence system was created in Syria, with an ability to scan the radio traffic of terrorists and militants. The Su-34 uses the L-175V/L-175VE container with the Khibiny EW complex (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, September 20).
A multifunctional aviation-based electronic warfare/suppression complex was developed as part of the Khibiny R&D project by the Kaluga Radio Engineering Research Institute. It protects aircraft from anti-aircraft and aviation weapons. Due to difficulties with the mass production of Su-34s and L-175V systems, a four-container stackable version of the Khibiny was developed to provide group protection of aircraft. The complex included U1 and U2 containers. These containers do not require executive radio intelligence for target designation. The second pair of containers—Sh1 and Sh0—had an operating range that was different from the Khibiny, and their work required a different logic and a separate executive radio intelligence system. The L-265 Khibiny-M EW complex was created, which can be used both in the containerless version—only with equipment built into the airplane’s glider (Su-35S)—and using containers (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, September 20).
Tsyganok notes the deployment of the Krasukha-4 EW systems in Syria, designed to suppress aircraft radars and counter drones. The Krasukha-4 complex is capable of closing the protected object from radar detection at ranges up to 150–300 kilometers, and can also inflict radar damage to enemy means of communication and EW. Moreover, by mixing various EW systems with air-defense assets such as the Pantsir-S1, the Russian Armed Forces have successfully countered enemy drone attacks in Syria, reportedly eliminating 54 this year alone (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, September 20).
A recent tactical-level exercise in the EW forces in Buryatia, in the Eastern MD, used the Borisoglebsk-2 modern complexes for delivering complex electronic attacks to command-and-control (C2) centers and communications centers of a notional enemy. EW units reportedly used a new form of EW, suppressing radio, radio relay and satellite communication channels, including control and data transmission channels of unmanned reconnaissance and strike aircraft. It uses all the electronic equipment available in the Borisoglebsk-2 complex, which continuously conducts electronic intelligence in the frequency range specified by each automated radio interference station. After scanning the range and detecting the most important frequencies, a quasi-simultaneous suppression mode is introduced to create interference at several frequencies simultaneously (Baikal Daily, September 12).
On September 13, a squadron of Su-34s from an air regiment in the Central MD used EW as part of an exercise in overcoming enemy air defense. The exercises were held in the Chelyabinsk and Sverdlovsk regions. The participating jets were tasked with conducting an attack without fighter escorts. They took off in pairs and singly in radio silence and, on approach to the enemy air defenses, divided into two groups. The first group of Su-34s, gaining altitude, used the Khibiny system, simulating two strategic bombers without cover with their radar field. The misleading of enemy air-defense systems began tracking large-sized targets. Meanwhile, the second part of the squadron flew at low altitudes, disconnecting communications and EW; it entered the combat area unnoticed. After launching air-to-surface missiles at simulated enemy targets, the pilots turned on their aircrafts’ EW defense systems and left the combat training mission area. More than 500 military personnel and around 15 aircraft were involved in the exercises (Aex.ru, September 13).
Many of the Russian “advances” in EW have simply involved finally introducing systems that were in the R&D stage since the late Soviet period. However, Syria provided an opportunity to combat test and experiment with EW deployments. Tsyganok’s overview of Russian EW recognizes that this capability is crucial in modern warfare and calls for further advances in Russia. He advocates the development of a covert or stealth UAV combined with EW capability to enter enemy airspace and conduct EW operations at short distances (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, September 20). It is this innovative side that must be carefully monitored.
Roger N. McDermott specializes in Russian and Central Asian defense and security issues and is a Senior Fellow in Eurasian Military Studies, The Jamestown Foundation, Washington DC, Senior International Research Fellow for the Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO), Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and Affiliated Senior Analyst, Danish Institute for International Studies, Copenhagen. McDermott is on the editorial board of Central Asia and the Caucasus and the scientific board of the Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies. He recently wrote The Reform of Russia’s Conventional Armed Forces: Problems, Challenges and Policy Implications (October 2011).