There’s an invisible battle that the U.S. is losing to Russia right now, and like so much of our current domestic political turmoil, it both centers on and transcends Ukraine.
The U.S. has mostly focused on fighting non-state actors like the Taliban and Al Qaeda that lacked the technology to engage in electronic warfare, lulling the Pentagon into complacency.
Russia is currently dominating the arena of ground-based electronic warfare, the discipline dedicated to detecting and interfering with enemy radar and communication signals while protecting friendly forces from similar effects. This realm is essential to the modern battleground because militaries increasingly rely on radar, radio signals and satellites to track and relay the position of friendly and enemy forces, coordinate attacks between headquarters and those in the field across long distances, operate drone systems and guide weapons to targets.
Perhaps Russia’s most successful deployment of this ability is in its ongoing conflict with Ukraine, where a 2017 Army study detailed the devastating effectiveness of its electronic warfare capabilities in shutting down Ukrainian FM radio and cellular networks. Jammers, which disrupt command signals, brought down over 100 Ukrainian drones, while signals intelligence was used to target deadly artillery strikes.
In other cases, the Russian systems emitted signals that caused artillery and missiles to prematurely detonate or veer off course. And in one particularly shocking operation, soldiers’ families receive hoax texts stating, “Your son is killed in action,” prompting calls and texts to the soldiers. Minutes later, artillery struck the location where a large group of cellphones was detected.
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What Russia is doing to Ukraine it can replicate against the United States. That’s because the U.S. has become incredibly dependent on electronic communications, and has focused attention on building up these capabilities without taking adequate steps to protect them from sabotage — making it the Pentagon’s Achilles' heel.
While Russia has been perfecting the use of electronic warfare against Ukraine, since the end of Cold War the U.S. has mostly focused on fighting nonstate actors like the Taliban and Al Qaeda that lacked the technology to engage in electronic warfare, lulling the Pentagon into complacency about the threats facing U.S. systems.
The Army study warned that American reliance on electronic communications and GPS navigation means that even a short interruption of these abilities “can be disastrous to an operation,” while drones — which occupy a prominent place in war planning — may become unusable in many circumstances.
Russia has reportedly already been launching electronic attacks on U.S. systems with some success over Syria. In 2018 an American general noted they were “knocking our communications down, disabling our EC-130s” — planes equipped with jamming pods. Other reports indicated they were blocking drones from using the GPS signals they rely upon.
To be fair, the U.S. has maintained some of these abilities in the Navy and Air Force. Most modern warships and combat aircraft are now fitted with a self-defense jamming capability, and electronic attack jets have proven useful in some places.
The deficit is most acute in the Army, which largely retired its electronic attack assets, which allowed it to jam enemy radars and communication links, with the end of the Cold War. In part, this was based on the idea that the Air Force or Navy could provide those capabilities. But in a conflict against an enemy with powerful air defenses today, U.S. ground forces would need to have their own capabilities on hand.
And even that will leave a stark capability gap. Every Russian armor or infantry brigade has an electronic warfare company — a unit usually more than three times the size of a platoon. These units are capable of both jamming, deceiving and geo-locating enemy signals at different bandwidths, and disrupting or hijacking drones.
Preparing for war using the electromagnetic spectrum also means training officers to learn how to do without the lavish sensors and communication links they’ve been able to use unimpeded in past combat operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. It also requires practice at reducing electronic and cyber footprints and avoiding antenna farms of communication systems at field headquarters, as is done now, that could make them big fat targets.
As the Army study warns, almost everyone that deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan has conducted a routine battle update over radio or phone. In a confrontation with Russian or their proxies, “this type of action will get units targeted through electronic warfare and then killed with artillery.”
Today’s network-centric warfare is less about hitting the enemy harder than it can hit you, and more about locating the enemy first while making it hard for it to do the same.
Trying to match China and Russia system for system might not be necessary, however. A recent Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments study argues that new systems should focus on being cheap and, preferably, expendable (i.e., unmanned) so that they can be fielded on a larger scale and employed more rapidly than the current premium assets that exist.
Selling the importance of electronic warfare can seem abstract when compared to obviously deadly weapons such as stealth fighters or tanks. But today’s network-centric warfare is less about hitting the enemy harder than it can hit you, and more about locating the enemy first while making it hard for it to do the same. That’s why troops in the field need to be trained and equipped for a war on the electromagnetic spectrum — a battlefield that Russia and China have recognized as key to victory in any future conflict.
Sébastien Roblin writes on the technical and historical aspects of international security and conflict for publications including the The National Interest and War is Boring. He tweets @sebastienroblin.