A recording of a live video feed from a Russian military drone, apparently intercepted by Ukrainian forces and posted online, hints at an increasingly important front in Russia’s 22-month wider war on Ukraine—an electronic front.
Look past the infantry battles, air raids, and naval maneuvering that dominate the news from the 600-mile front in Ukraine: You’ll see that there’s also a battle raging in the electromagnetic spectrum. And it might be one of the decisive battles as the wider war grinds toward its third year.
This electronic warfare isn’t just evident in Ukraine. It’s central to Israel’s strategy in its assault on the Hamas terror group in Palestine, too. And if the Chinese Communist Party ever makes good on its threat to invade Taiwan, a move that could draw the United States and China into a major war, it’s a safe bet the fighting will expand across the electromagnetic spectrum.
Whoever controls radio transmissions also controls how troops, aircraft, and missiles navigate and communicate. Block the transmissions, and you can paralyze battalions, squadrons and fleets—and, yes, drones. “Electronic warfare is the key to winning the drone war,” Gen. Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, the commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian armed forces, wrote in The Economist.
Consider what happens in that Russian drone video, which was posted on social media by a famous Ukrainian drone operator who goes by the call-sign “Magyar.” The small quadcopter—the kind of unmanned aerial vehicle both Russia and Ukraine have fitted with explosives and sent on lethal one-way missions—appears to be on course for a potential strike on Ukrainian positions.
Abruptly, the drone wobbles in mid-air—then tumbles toward the ground. An apparent victim of Ukrainian radio-jamming.
This kind of jamming has been a part of warfare for nearly a century now. The principle is simple: Find the radio frequencies the enemy is using, and broadcast overwhelming noise on the same frequencies in order to render them unusable.
In the years following World War II, jamming mostly targeted radio communications. But as more and more weapons began to rely on long-distance command signals or even GPS satellites, jamming could also prevent accurate navigation. What good is a GPS-guided cruise missile if it can’t communicate with the GPS satellites orbiting Earth thousands of miles overhead?
Today, many militaries practice some form of electronic warfare. The Russian armed forces practice it harder than most. “Moscow is stepping up its efforts to renew and modernize the EW inventory,” analyst Roger McDermott wrote in a 2017 study for the Estonian defense ministry, using the military shorthand for “electronic warfare.”
Which is why observers expected this kind of warfare to play a growing role as Russia escalated its war on Ukraine, starting with the invasion of Crimea in 2014 and widening with the assaults beginning in February 2022. “EW forms an organic part of Russia’s kinetic and non-kinetic operations,” McDermott wrote.
The electromagnetic frequencies were weirdly calm in the wider war’s early months, however. It seems the Russians’ chaotic, poorly planned and ultimately failed assault on Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, in February and March 2022 left radio-jamming crews no time to set up and operate their equipment.
“Where the Russians were outstanding in February 2022 was in terms of the sheer numbers of jammers,” Trent Telenko, a former quality auditor with the U.S. Defense Contract Management Agency who specializes in electronic warfare, told The Daily Beast. But “you have to do a top-down plan to use all of the kit simultaneously,” Telenkso said, meaning the Kremlin has to coordinate its electronic troops with its regular troops. “Russia didn’t do a competent job of that.”
That began to change as the war slowed down in late 2022. Nowhere was this more evident than in southern Ukraine, as Russian troops dug in on the southern “left” bank of the wide Dnipro River. Their goal: to defend against a widely-anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive.
Russian electronic warfare crews also dug in across the south—and got to work jamming Ukrainian signals. However, when the Ukrainian counteroffensive finally kicked off in June, Kyiv’s forces launched their own electromagnetic counterattacks along the Dnipro River’s left bank. It was a prerequisite to a forced crossing of the river by Ukrainian marines that began in mid-October.
First, Ukrainian forces triangulated the locations of some of the Russians’ jamming systems and struck them with precision bombs and drones that, ironically, tend to rely on GPS for guidance.
Exactly how the Ukrainians could maneuver around the jamming in order to strike the jammers is a closely held secret. It’s possible the latest Ukrainian drones “frequency hop,” a process in which they rapidly switch up their radio channels in order to stay ahead of enemy jamming. Some of Ukraine’s American-made munitions also have back-up guidance systems that don’t depend on GPS.
Strikes on Russian jammers were just the start of Ukraine’s electronic counterattack. In parallel with the strikes, the Ukrainians deployed jammers of their own—and focused the electronic noise at a swath of the front line just south of the Dnipro River in Kherson.
“We are seeing Ukraine pull away from Russia in the drone [and] electronic warfare race,” Telenko noted. The result, in Kherson, was a dead zone for Russian communications and satellite navigation. When that drone recorded itself tumbling to the ground, it was because it had flown into just such a dead zone.
This was the protective cover Ukrainian marines needed to get across the Dnipro starting on Oct. 19 and establish a bridgehead in a settlement called Krynky. From there, they advanced south, lending fresh momentum to a wider counteroffensive that was slowing elsewhere in Ukraine.
Ukrainians and their allies shouldn’t celebrate quite yet. “Russia should not be underestimated,” Zaluzhnyi warned. To give his forces a shot at victory, they need drones with their own built-in jammers, plus more “counter-EW measures” for pinpointing Russia’s own jammers.
No one pretends the electronic battle will be an easy one. “There will be constant seesawing between Russia and Ukraine as new jamming and jam-resistant weapons systems are deployed,” Telenko said.
But it’s a battle the Ukrainians must win in order to win the war.