“It was a combination of Russian arrogance and Ukrainian ingenuity,” said retired Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, explaining Moscow’s reversals on this front. Hodges commanded US Army troops in Europe from 2014 to 2018 and became one of the most knowledgeable commentators on the war.
Electronic warfare, or “EW”, is one of the exotic military arts that can be decisive on the modern battlefield but is almost unknown to the general public. The objective is to attack an adversary by manipulating the electromagnetic spectrum – by jamming, intercepting or altering communications, radars, GPS or other signals. This is the 21st century version of what one of Britain’s leading WWII scientists described as the ‘wizard war’.
Russia’s vulnerability was made clear last weekend when it was reported that Major General Andrei Simonov, one of his country’s leading electronic warfare specialists, had been killed in a strike Ukrainian artillery on a command post near Izyum. That Ukraine can strike such a sensitive position illustrates their surprising mastery of targeting and precision attacking.
Ukraine has exploited Russian communications, jammed its signals, blinded its surveillance and captured some of its most advanced electronic warfare systems, experts say. The United States and its NATO partners provided essential EW equipment and training. But US experts say it was the Ukrainians themselves who adapted these high-tech weapons to protect their homeland.
Ukraine’s success was notable in part because of the initial widespread expectation among US and NATO commanders that Russia would dominate the electromagnetic battlespace in this war. Russia had built systems that could, in theory, create an electronic bubble around its forces, effectively blinding adversaries. US commanders feared that Ukrainian units would be isolated and unable to communicate in this fog of electronic warfare.
Kyiv has rebuilt its capabilities after suffering bitter setbacks in Russia’s 2014 and 2015 attacks on eastern Ukraine. The success of Russian EW at the time was meteoric, and some senior Pentagon officials feared it could happen again this year. But as Russian commanders prepared for the 2022 invasion, they made two mistakes: they assumed the Ukrainian military hadn’t advanced significantly since 2015, and they ignored the impact of the equipment and training provided by NATO.
After 2015, the United States began supplying Ukraine with secure L3Harris radios that could not be easily jammed, unlike the old Soviet-era equipment Ukraine used. There’s an interesting footnote here: L3Harris radios were among the military equipment that President Donald Trump withheld from Ukraine as he tried to curry political favors from President Volodymyr Zelensky in 2019, such as I reported it at the time.
Ukrainians have learned to use these modern tools of warfare at a training base – known as Joint Multinational Training Group – Ukraine – which was established in 2015 by the United States and some NATO partners. at the Yavoriv combat training center in western Ukraine, near Lviv. . Hodges said U.S. commanders had learned so much from watching Ukrainians prepare to fight in an EW-contested battlespace that they had revised U.S. Army training practices during exercises in Hohenfels, Kenya. Germany.
Russia’s electronic battlefield mode of warfare suffers from some of the same limitations that have hampered Russian forces in general, according to US military experts. Russian systems are large and better suited to static positions, rather than the multi-pronged mobile offensive that Russia launched in February. Russian systems worked well in the tight Donbass combat zone in 2014, and they could repeat that success in the new Donbass campaign that started last month.
Russia’s centralized and top-down command structure has also prevented its electronic warfare forces from making rapid adaptations; there were no Russian NCOs who could make quick repairs. And because the Russians lacked complete air supremacy over Ukraine, their EW aircraft often remained in safe territory in Russia and Belarus, limiting signal gathering and jamming capabilities.
When their sophisticated communications equipment failed, the Russians resorted to cellphones on Ukrainian networks, which revealed not only their plans but also their locations, enabling precise attacks. Another setback was Ukraine’s capture of some of Russia’s most sensitive electronic warfare equipment, including part of an advanced Krasukha-4 array, which the Ukrainians quickly attempted to redesign and turn against Russians.
When the history of the war in Ukraine is finally written, perhaps the chapter on electronic warfare will be one of the most telling – and the one where US aid has been both least visible and most helpful.