In the ancient Roman Army, the throwing spear (pilum), sword, and shield were the primary tools for the Roman army’s tactical success on the battlefield. Today, modern armies are armed with invisible spears (long range), swords (short range), and shields (defence) in the form of Electronic Warfare (EW). In the battlespace of the next decade, the side that controls the electrons wins the battle. EW is a cross-domain source of power that can dramatically impact the execution of multi-domain operations. In addition, EW can become a major player in conducting grey-zone operations. The grey zone is defined by the US State Department in a 3 January 2017 report as the use of techniques to achieve a nation’s goals and frustrate those of its rivals by employing instruments of power – often asymmetric and ambiguous in character – that are not the direct use of acknowledged regular military forces. EW can become a significant tool of national power in the grey zone, as it is invisible and may or does not always generate kinetic effects. EW, therefore, is right on the threshold of military escalation. How would NATO respond, for instance, to a Russian EW attack on the Global Positioning Systems (GPS) service to Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, or Estonia (NATO members) for a specific period of time? What if that attack was only limited to the area around Ukraine? Although EW attacks can pose a higher escalation threshold than some cyber and CEMA (Cyber-Electromagnetic Activities) attacks, this distinction is becoming increasingly blurred. Let’s review the latest EW threat to the US and NATO from Russia and see the state of EW with regard to Europe and NATO.
Russia’s New EW Forces
The Russian way of war is predisposed to a scientific approach and puts important relevance into what the old Soviet military called the “correlation of forces”. This concept is a metric that, in its most general definition, is described as the relative alignment of two opposing forces or groups of forces. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has been trying to regain its footing as a regional power. The combined events of the US invasion of Iraq and the 2008 Russo-Georgian war drove Russia to reassess its military structures. Russia’s assessment of its correlation of forces with the West is that the Russian Federation is dramatically outspent and outnumbered by the US and NATO and surrounded on all sides. Several key Russian leaders view Russian military forces as the means to return Russia’s old glory as a significant, if not dominant, world power. Viewing the US and NATO as their most likely threat, the Russian military is constantly searching for a means to overcome its perceived weaknesses. No longer able to fight a long war against the US and NATO, Russia has adopted a gray zone operations concept (sometimes called the Gerasimov manoeuvre) and a short war mentality that is focused on their near-abroad – those areas that are close to Russia and were once part of the old Soviet Union. To win these shorter conflicts in the near-abroad, the Russian military is developing capabilities to leverage niche combat multipliers that will generate a relative advantage over their opponents. EW is one such combat multiplier and the Russians intend to use EW for electronic reconnaissance, deny US and NATO the use of their electronic systems, and protect their own systems in any future fight.
The Russian military defines EW as the use of electronic means against an enemy’s C4ISR to change the quality of the information and to change the conditions of the operational environment. The goal is to reduce the effectiveness of the enemy C4ISR and reduce the speed of the enemy’s information and decision cycle. Russian EW includes the ability to gather intelligence data, the suppression of enemy electronic systems, and the protection of friendly systems by electronic means. Russian EW, therefore, consists of three categories of action: electronic support (ES), electronic attack (EA), and electronic protection (EP).
Russian EW forces are organised as independent EW troops directly under the General Staff and EW forces are integrated into the cutting edge of Russian ground forces. Since 2008, Russian forces have been organised into a brigade-based system. Each Russian Motorised Rifle Brigade (MRB) or Tank Brigade (TB) contains an EW company, with ES, EA, and EP functions, organic to the brigade. In addition to these organic forces, the Russians have five EW brigades across its Military Districts, each with four EW battalions. There are additional EW units in the naval forces to protect strategic locations. This intensive build-up of EW forces is designed, according to Russia’s Chief of EW Troops, General Major Yuriy Lastochkin – in an interview with Krasnaya Zvezda in April 2017 for “The Day of the Electronic Warfare Specialist”, a national holiday in Russia – to be a decisive element on the battlefield and is as important as precision fires. “The increase in the role of EW is determined by the very mission of disorganising the command and control of enemy troops and weapons by means of electronic defeat,” Lastochkin said. “We have to recognise distinctly that a new realm of confrontation has appeared – the information-telecommunications space. The spectrum of missions of EW Troops is broadening significantly. The effect of using developmental EW means is comparable to defeat by precision fire. Conceptual documents approved by the Russian Federation President (Vladimir Putin) in the realm of electronic warfare aim for this. The country’s military-political leadership attaches great significance to the improvement of EW systems as one of the most important elements of guaranteeing national security. Today, electronic warfare is a most complex intellectual-technical component, particularly in hybrid conflicts. This in turn requires the development of principally new means capable of neutralising the enemy’s technological and information advantage.”
To support their EW concept, Russian military EW equipment includes a full spectrum of short-, medium- and long-range systems. According to Dmitry Gorenburg, in a report by CNA titled “Russia’s Military Modernisation Plans: 2018–2027”, Russia’s EW capability is “superior to those of its peers.” A brief list of systems that was tabulated by the Estonian MoD in a 2017 report titled “Russia’s Electronic Warfare Capabilities to 2025” is shown below:
This catalogue of equipment is only a partial list of the top-of-the-line EW systems that Russia has already deployed. These systems are primarily made by the KRET (Radio-Electronic Technologies Concern) which consists of 76 Russian companies and organisations that develop and manufacture electronic products intended for the Russian military and civilian sector. KRET employs over 50,000 employees (in 2015) and supplies its products to 30 countries across the world, earning US$1.6Bn from the sale of military goods in 2015, and is an increasingly important exporter for the Russian arms industry. KRET is aggressively pursuing newer EW weapons. In October 2018, the Moscow Times reported that KRET had developed and field-tested a new electromagnetic weapon for Russia’s 6th-generation fighter planes that will use a powerful UHF (Ultra High Frequency) impulse to completely destroy the enemy’s radio-electronic systems. A spokesman for KRET, Vladimir Mikheev, reported that research to develop radio-electronic weapons will also result in the development of “electromagnetic artillery shells, bombs and missiles, which carry a magnetic explosion generator.” In short, Russia has deployed an effective, world-class air–ground EW system that has also been tested and proven in combat in Syria and Ukraine.
The US and NATO
After the Cold War, the US Army disbanded its electronic warfare corps. After nearly two decades of fighting counterinsurgency operations, the US and NATO forces have further neglected their EW capabilities, but at the same time rely heavily on the electromagnetic spectrum for the secure transmission of electronic signals for their superior C4ISR systems. Today, every system, nearly every piece of equipment, and every soldier is an electronic emitter. Being EMS-enabled is a major strength and gives US and NATO forces a significant edge in combat – but only when it works. Like all strengths, this can also be an Achilles heel if it is not protected.
The US and NATO define Electronic Warfare as “a military action that exploits electromagnetic energy, both actively and passively, to provide situational awareness and create offensive and defensive effects.” The Alliance views EW operations in three categories: Electronic Attack (EA), Electronic Defence (ED) and Electronic Surveillance (ES). Since many of the US and NATO EW systems are airborne, the focus for EW is enabled by joint Electromagnetic Operations (EMO), but the development and deployment of state-of-the-art EW systems lags far behind the Russian capability. In recent US war games, aggressive Red Team EW actions have shut down US networks and turned US military C4ISR screens blank. Robert Work, a former US Deputy Secretary of Defence, reported in a 7 March 2018 article in “Breaking Defence”: “Whenever we have an exercise and the red force really destroys our command and control, we stop the exercise.” This bodes ill for the ability to fight and win in a contested EMS environment. It seems that the US and NATO have neither the number, nor quality of systems organised into the right organisations to answer this complex challenge.
In 2017, the Estonian MoD, well aware of the Russian EW challenge, published a study “Russia’s Electronic Warfare Capabilities to 2025”, dated September 2017, that emphasised that Russia’s EW capability against the Alliance “will pose a serious challenge to the proper planning and execution of NATO’s defence of the Baltic states, and NATO’s entire Eastern Flank, in the event of a Russian assault. Russia’s growing technological advances in EW will allow its forces to jam, disrupt and interfere with NATO communications, radar and other sensor systems, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and other assets, thus negating advantages conferred on the Alliance by its technological edge. Be it in the air, maritime, land or cyber domains, NATO will encounter an increasingly capable adversary focused on developing and deploying a vast array of EW systems as force enablers and multipliers.” This EW capability is an integral part of Russia’s anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) approach and is clearly tailored to target NATO’s C4ISR.
To address the urgent crisis, the US and NATO are buying systems and fielding units. In a recent move, Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander, sent an urgent request for EW systems and units and has just recently put his headquarters on 24 hour operations status. Scaparrotti understands that EW and Cyber are major contested areas and is changing the mindset to deal with the threat while US military planners are considering naming the EMS as a separate warfighting domain in order to focus energy and resources. He sent an urgent operational need statement to the Pentagon requesting EW forces to deploy to Europe. Nevertheless, the imbalance between US and Russian EW forces is stark. To give you an example of the magnitude of the difference in investment and focus between Russian and US personnel for EW units, the US Army increased the total number of EW troops in 2018 to 940 soldiers. Correspondingly, European NATO EW forces are minuscule and EW may be an area for many NATO members to answer their pledge to increase their defence spending to 2% of their GDP by 2024. The Russian Army numbers are secret, but the best estimate is nearly 9,000 soldiers in the Russian ground forces, and these troops are in EW units integrated into Russian combat formations, where each Russian combat brigade has an organic EW company. Russia has also placed in charge of their EW effort, where, in contrast, the senior US Army EW offer is only a colonel. The US and NATO, therefore, must address the weakness in EW capability rapidly and decide how to turn this situation around. Chasing the Russians, system for system, and soldier-for-soldier is the wrong strategy. As the late General Don Starry once stated: “It must be the role of technology to provide weapons systems which render ineffective costly investment by our foes — not simply to try to match something the other fellow has just fielded…With new weapons, we should seek new dimensions of combat…Technology should seek to make battle outcome less, not more calculable. Instead of restoring some balance to the neat firepower score equation we should introduce new imponderables into the traditional calculus of battle.” Starry recognised that the time it takes to build military capabilities generates a race against time in an action-reaction-counteraction cycle where advances by one side may be countered the other. The recent case of countering the F-35 with quantum or photonic radar is a case in point. If true, the photonic radar would degrade the stealth feature of the Lockheed Martin F-35 LIGHTNING II, and this would be a huge blow to the F-35 fighter programme.
Information superiority is vital to modern war. He who controls the EMS, wins the war. Until recently, the US and NATO have enjoyed information dominance. When that dominance is contested, as we have seen in operations in Syria, the surprise comes to us as a terrific shock. During the first two decades of the 21st century, US and NATO military forces expected information dominance as a normal condition of combat and became complacent with regard to the invisible weapons of EW. The Russians are working tirelessly to create the possibility of employing EW as a vital combat multiplier. Russia is feeling more confident in their ability to use military force to achieve political objectives, and their EW prowess is a big part of that confidence. Russia may not be able to gain dominance in all domains, but it may be able to do so with surprise for a short period of time in efforts below the threshold of executing a major war. That may be all they need.
John Antal is an expert on military affairs. He has published 14 books on military and leadership subjects and over 500 articles in military professional journals. He served 30 years as a soldier in the US Army, retiring as a colonel, having commanded combat arms units from platoon to brigade.