The Ukrainian soldiers peered over the cold dirt edge of their trench. The artillery had abated, but the whine of a nearby spotter UAV promised its imminent return. In the distance, they could see camouflaged spetsnaz moving into position with suppressed Vintorez marksman rifles. Looking at his radio, a lieutenant dared to hope. “Aleksei, you see this? Radio’s working. Maybe a break in the jamming.” “Is that really a good thing?” his sergeant responded. “Go ahead and call, that’s what they want. The Russians will hear you first and send their thermobaric regards. That is if the spetsnaz don’t get here first.” The young officer slumped. His comms gear was useless; he and his men were cut off and alone.
Much has been written about Russia’s innovative concepts of operations in Ukraine and Syria, variously dubbed “hybrid” or “non-linear” war, but specific tactics have received far less scrutiny than they deserve. A look, in particular, at Russia’s use of electronic warfare (EW) and special operations forces (SOF) suggests ways that U.S. and other NATO forces might prepare to counter them.
Technology and new EW doctrines have accelerated the decades-old competition between active attack systems and countermeasures, shortening the evolutionary cycle from weeks and months to mere hours. In The Nature and Content of New-Generation War, sometimes described as a “how-to manual” for the seizure of Crimea, two senior Russian military officers note the importance of EW in the Gulf War and assert the need for sustained “electronic knockdown” attacks in future conflicts. They recommend that Russian ground forces “be continually improved and equipped with…EW capabilities.”
The positioning of EW forces in the Russian order-of-battle underscores their importance. Every military district houses an independent EW brigade, supplemented by strategic battalions with specialized EW equipment and a special independent EW brigade carrying the title “Supreme Main Command” (only two other units in the Russian Armed Forces reportedly carry this title).
In Ukraine, Russia frequently jams its enemies’ tactical communications through a variety of means. During the initial Crimean seizure, cellphones in the area were reportedly jammed by Russian warships. As the conflict moved to the Donbas, pro-Ukrainian and OSCE UAVs found their data links persistently jammed. Further, Russian UAVs that can carry the Leyer-3 jammer and direct artillery fire have been spotted in Ukraine and Syria. Where Ukrainian forces have acquired encrypted radios, Russian EW troops hone in on their stronger signal to geolocate their position. These and many similar tactics enable Russia to erode its adversaries’ intelligence-gathering, communications, and command and control.
Russian EW gear may even threaten strategic collection platforms. For instance, the Murmansk-BN long-range jammer was recently deployed to Crimea, and the Krasukha-4 advanced EW system has been observed in both Ukraine and Syria. Even though the technical capabilities of these two systems are likely exaggerated for propaganda purposes, they are believed to have the potential to interfere with low-earth orbit spy satellites, airborne surveillance platforms, and other collection systems. In any case, their deployment certainly allows them to prove their capabilities against advanced U.S. and NATO platforms.
Russia also uses its EW capabilities to amplify the effectiveness of its special operations forces, the “little green men” used to such noteworthy effect in Ukraine. In his famous article on hybrid warfare, Gen. Valery Gerasimov asserts that SOF and internal opposition are used “to create a permanently operating front through the entire territory of the enemy state…” To the authors of The Nature and Content of New-Generation War, SOF are maneuverable shock infantry that gather targeting information for Russian strikes and “roll over” weakened enemies. Retired Colonel-General Anatoly Zaitsev writes how the ultimate goal of SOF “is to destroy the enemy’s critical facilities and disrupt or destroy his forces’ systems.” Russia’s renewed interest in SOF is further illustrated by the creation of the elite Komanda Spetsial’nikh Operatsiy (KSO) command and deployment of various SOF forces in Ukraine and Syria.
It’s hard to comprehensively track Russian SOF, but they have been observed operating throughout Ukraine. At the beginning of the conflict, KSO and naval spetsnaz units seized several strategic sites, including airports, surface-to-air missile batteries, Ukrainian military facilities, and the Crimean parliament building. As the conflict shifted to the Donbas, other SOF elements were deployed to protect Russian technical trainers, instill control over the separatists’ chain of command, and train and support separatist fighters.
In Syria, the Russian SOF deployment is more ambiguous and less overt. KSO elements have recently been “redeployed” from Ukraine to help coordinate Russian airstrikes. In addition, “highly-secretive” Zaslon SOF personnel have been deployed to guard sensitive Russian equipment, personnel, and information. Additional SOF activity is likely as Russia’s involvement in Syria expands.
Moscow has proven adept at using EW and SOF in concert to fragment and slow adversaries’ strategic decision-making. While “little green men” secure key locations and train local forces, electronic-warfare forces distort ISR collection by adversaries and third parties, limiting their ability to project an accurate counter-narrative to inform confused domestic audiences and a divided international community. And even when a defender does manage to grasp the situation, Russian EW attacks on their command, control, communications, and intelligence disrupts their response.
Nations threatened by Russia’s hybrid warfare can strengthen their resilience through investing in two areas. First, build stronger and more redundant C3I by encrypting radio, data links, and satellite communications, and developing promising new technologies such as cognitive EW. Although Russia’s advanced EW capabilities can attack nearly any system, redundancy can limit their impact. Second, improve the ability to monitor and understand the battlespace by improving tactical ISR. UAVs are key: hand-launched ones, medium-altitude drones with greater endurance, and airborne ISR platforms with electro-optical/infrared sensors and signals intelligence payloads—all of which must be supported by secure data links.
Yet since no single platform or system provides a silver-bullet solution to hybrid warfare, the U.S. and its NATO partners must explore developing new operating concepts; for example, ground forces should be prepared to mimic the U.S. Navy’s “emissions control” by operating in the absence of a data network. They must increase joint training against conventional and unconventional Russian military scenarios, allowing NATO to strengthen its response, practice its interoperability, and and signal its defensive resolve. Ultimately, they must learn how to assess their own prowess, doctrine, strategy and tactics against an adversary whose expertise in hybrid warfare is growing by the day.
The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily reflect those of any organization.