I did a direct message interview with Forbes Magazine journalist David Axe the first week of November 2023 about the state of the “Wizard War,” that is electronic warfare, between Ukraine and Russia. I’ve cleaned it up for mis-spellings, removed extraneous comments, adding links and photos for clarity and I am presenting it below:
1. The Russians were famous for their battlefield EW prior to the 2022 invasion of Ukraine. How do you think this EW complex stacked up against other countries’ own EW systems?
Russian EW kit has ranged from good to adequate to poor in terms of individual performance compared to Western standards.
The biggest gap seems to be in the latest VKS (Russian Air Force) Khibiny M Electronic Warfare Self Protection Pod (EWSP), which seems to lack the latest digital radio frequency memory (DRFM) technology. [In 2017 the Russians claimed a Su-24M FENCER carrying the new Khibiny M EWSP system had disabled the SPY-1 Aegis weapon system on the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer. See the picture below] DFRM is needed to survive very long range air to air missile combat engagements and for delivering anti-radar Kh-31/AS-17 KRYPTON missiles, like the US HARM, against ground radars.
There have been X (formerly Twitter) social media videos of VKS jets with pairs of Kh-31 and no EWSP pods. Which meant the jets were using the Kh-31 missile seekers to hunt Ukrainian radars. Shooting both Kh-31 missiles left the jet defenseless!
Where the Russians were outstanding in Feb. 2022 was in terms of the shear numbers of jammers they had with both the force structure and doctrine to operate them. Russia is still a big believer in “Quantity has a quality all its own.”
2) But the Russian EW didn’t work very well at first in Ukraine, no? What went wrong?
The Russian problem with using electronic warfare is sociological. A centralized authoritarian who picks for political loyalty for 20 years also picks for corruption and incompetence for just as long. Putin’s military has extreme levels of incompetence at every level, from top to bottom, as a result. In a centrally controlled system like Russia, the stupidity of the commander flows downhill.
Where this showed up in the electronic warfare campaign in Ukraine was that the commander of the VKS was a “green suiter” (Army) dressed in blue (Air Force), with an Low Intensity Conflict (LIC) background from Syria.
This was reflected in the lack of (term of art alert) “electronic deconfliction.” That is, given all the radios, radars, sensors and jammers share the same over crowded pieces of the electromagnetic spectrum. You have to do a top down plan to use all of the kit simultaneously. Russia didn’t do a competent job of that for its “special military operation” in the dash to Kyiv.
When Russia took out Ukraine’s sector and national operational command posts, which coordinated fighters and surface to air missiles, using electronic radio interference (Jamming), anti-radiation missiles against radars and cyberattacks. It did not “Deconflict them” with their own very similar military radar/radio equipment and Ukraine’s cellphone network that its own forces used for communications.
This lack of “electronic deconfliction” planning resulted in both the stalled 40 km column from a lack of logistical radio communications and Ukrainian TB-2’s drones plinking Russian air defenses (TB-2 picture below). Only the retreat to Belarus fixed the Russian Army deconfliction problems.
It appears Russia’s military is operating at about a mid-1942 Western Allied levels of electronic warfare in terms of joint services cooperation on radio frequencies.
The last couple of times I’ve seen US military operations that were this slapdash in terms of radio deconfliction were the 1979 Operation Argo failed rescue mission to Tehran & the 1982 Operation Urgent Fury Grenada invasion.
Operation Just Cause in Panama five years later was a masterpiece of radio deconfliction in comparison. The 1993 Battle of Mogadishu, AKA “Blackhawk Down,” was still very good in terms of radio communications.
US/NATO electronic warfare capability, and thus electronic deconfliction abilities, cratered in the mid-2000’s when Secretary of Defense Gates killed electronic warfare for a focus on LIC.
>>3) Now we’re in a new phase of the EW war, right? What changed?
A whole lot of things starting with the fact that Ukraine had “Run the Red Queens Race” with Russian EW from 2014 and was ready with its own EW doctrine including high emissions discipline (like using telephone wire as much as possible rather than radio) and a “robust recovery from regular back ups” cyberwar capability.
The availability of Western military aid since March 2022 saw Ukraine finally able to do more of what it wanted to do, but could not afford. That is, things like obtaining vast quantities of Western highly jamming resistant digital spread spectrum tactical radios from vendors like the USA’s Harris and Turkey’s Aselsan.
Another particularly import change as far as drones are concerned was Ukraine putting 31 year old Herman Smetanin in as the general director of at Ukroboronprom, the state arms manufacturer, in June 2023 (See the photo and link below).
Smetanin has directed Ukroboronprom help private Ukrainian companies scale their developments with tooling, money and connections as well as signing license agreements with three large companies for the production of their latest drone models. These drone models cover the full range from small quadcopter grenade droppers to assault drones in the same 1000 km (620 mile) range class as the Russia’s imported from Iran Shahed-136 drones.
One of the obvious pay off for this Ukroboronprom drone mobilization effort has been the simultaneous fielding of new Ukrainian FPV drone jammers that were ‘electronically deconflicted’ with a new generation of extended 25 km (15.5 mile) range FPV drones that are currently (as of Early November 2023) covering Ukrainian crossings of the Dnipro river in Kherson province.
While the Russians have been innovating with drones as well. Their military procurement bureaucracy fights or tries to take over Russian volunteer drone efforts rather than make then larger and more coordinated. It doesn’t help that Russian volunteer assault drone efforts are direct competitors with existing cruise missile and foreign obtained Shahed drone efforts.
Thus we are seeing Ukraine pulling away from Russia in the drone/electronic warfare race at the lower end, like FPV drones, because of Ukraine’s stronger civil society.
>>4) Is Ukraine countering Russian EW at all? If so, how?
I don’t know anything specific on that. And if I did I wouldn’t talk about it.
What I can say with certainty is based on the history of the WW2 electronic war between Great Britain and Germany. There will be constant seesawing between Russia and Ukraine as new jamming and jam resistant weapons systems are deployed. We will see these EW swings on social media the most often with drones.
Many historians say that Britain won WW2 “Wizards War.” That wasn’t quite true. The war ended when Britain had a major advantage and Allied strategic bombing prevented Germany from fielding its final generation of countermeasures.
>>5) What does Ukraine need to win the EW war?
Ukraine’s answer in 2023 is the same as Britain’s was in 1939-1945. Ukraine has to evolve and innovate faster, get ahead of Russia by two or three steps and keep pushing.
The example here was R.V. Jones as head of the British Air Ministry Scientific Intelligence during the “Battle of the Beams.” By working hard with code breaking, technical, human and photo intelligence, Jones spotted the final Luftwaffe radio navigation beam system during the “London Blitz” before it was deployed. Jones helped arrange for a mothballed BBC television transmission station to be available to jam the Luftwaffe new navigation beam system as soon as it was turned on.
Given heavy support from Western intelligence and defense contractors, plus its own civil society, Ukraine has every chance to duplicate Great Britain’s 1940’s feat against Russia in the 2020’s.