Russia’s Electronic Warfare Capabilities as a Threat to GPS

According to Russian military media, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has expressed growing confidence in the Armed Forces’ electronic warfare (EW) capabilities. This has proved to be a consistent area of military modernization over the past decade for Russia. However, according to a growing number of experts, those capabilities already appear to pose a threat to GPS satellite navigation signals; and by some indications, the Russian military may also possess EW capabilities to jam and bring down the United States’ cruise missiles. Shoigu stated in his address to the collegium of the defense ministry that many Russian EW systems are ahead of their foreign competitors and that these have been tried and tested during operations in Syria (Zvezdaweekly.ru, March 5; see: EDM, October 2, 2019).

Russia’s domestic defense industry has steadily supplied the Armed Forces in recent years with enhanced and improved versions of modern EW systems, which have featured in the country’s military operations and in combat training. Shoigu noted, “The massive re-equipment of troops with new electronic warfare assets required an increase in the intensity of practical training. Last year, over 200 special tactical and command-staff exercises were held, including 15 brigade exercises. The most ambitious in terms of the number of personnel, weapons and military equipment involved were special exercises of the electronic warfare troops, which took place in August 2020.” As part of this exercise, Shoigu explained, participating units practiced “the joint use of electronic warfare systems and systems of inter-service groupings of troops and forces [as well as] the actions of subunits in breaking through the air-defense system and repelling massive missile and air strikes of a simulated enemy” (Zvezdaweekly.ru, March 5).

One critical area for future research and development relates to protecting Russian military infrastructure and critical targets from enemy unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) swarm attacks; the rehearsal of such defensive measures notably featured during the strategic-operational exercise Kavkaz 2020 (see EDM, September 30, 2020). Moreover, in Moscow’s efforts to protect its Khmeimim airbase near Latakia, Syria, EW and air-defense systems first successfully countered an enemy UAV swarm attack on January 5, 2018. Of the 13 UAVs used in that attack, 6 were brought down solely by EW systems. Russian EW systems have similarly been used to disrupt a number of enemy UAV swarm attacks after that. However, the potential for such attacks to involve much larger numbers of drones has led the Russian companies involved in EW development to conclude that air defenses require miniature hit-to-kill missiles, such as the systems under development for the US military by Lockheed Martin (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, February 16).

As Moscow-based military expert Vladimir Gundarov assessed in an article in Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, there is also strong evidence that certain leading Russian EW systems can spoof GPS. Gundarov returned to consider the US cruise missile attack against targets in Syria on April 7, 2017 (see EDM, April 11, 2017). Among the 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles launched against the Al-Shayrat base, Moscow claims that 36 failed to reach their target. While the number of failed strikes is disputed by Moscow and Washington, Gundarov highlighted that some experts linked the purported loss of “36 US cruise missiles” to the use of a Russian Krasukha-4 EW system located at the Khmeimim airbase. Sources at the Bryansk Electromechanical Plant, where this complex is made, said that the Krasukha-4 is a multifunctional jamming module, while the newest-generation product is designed to protect ground targets from air strikes. The system is designed to jam enemy onboard systems up to a range of 200 kilometers. The Al-Shayrat base is located 135 km from the Russian airbase, though the naval logistics center at Tartus is closer, at 100 km. That said, Moscow has never disclosed publicly the precise locations in Syria of the EW systems it has deployed there (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, February 16).

Gundarov additionally paid close attention to a report issued in 2019 by the Washington-based Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS) in which four Russian EW systems were identified as posing a threat to GPS. These are the well-known Krasukha-4 at the Khmeimim airbase, the R-330Zh Zhitel jamming station deployed at Aleppo airport, as well as the Samarkand and Rosevnik-AERO electronic warfare systems. The author explains, “The technical characteristics of the latter two are unknown to anyone, as are their locations in Syria, if they are present there. According to a representative of the United Instrument-Making Corporation, where Rosevnik-AERO is made, this complex simply hacks into the drone’s onboard computer when it encounters a familiar system, and if it is unknown, it [still] takes it under its control in a few minutes” (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, February 16).

Gundarov uses this report to make two critically important points. First, he contends that the US intelligence community has been unable to determine whether the R-330Zh Zhitel works as part of the R-330M1P Diabazol automated jamming complex or whether it operates autonomously. Second, he draws attention to data from the International Space Station in the spring of 2018, showing that GPS signal spoofing was located at the Khmeimim airbase, “the nerve center of the Russian military campaign in Syria.” Gundarov concludes, “The signals successfully mimicked genuine GPS satellites but did not carry reliable navigation information. In fact, the receivers receiving these ‘fake’ signals confirmed that they were in contact with the satellites, but could not calculate their location or time, which effectively rendered the products inoperable” (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, February 16).

It appears that while Russian EW capabilities are generally improving, considerable attention is focused on countering enemy UAV swarm attacks, taking into account the operational experience gained in Syria. Equally, some of the leading EW systems already in use are undoubtedly capable of jamming and spoofing GPS. As Russia’s Armed Forces continue to procure such advanced jamming and spoofing EW systems in the future, it is clear that the United States and its allies may need to learn to rely less on GPS or find concrete measures to protect these signals.

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