From The Editor | October 10, 2023

What The U.S. Military Is Learning About Jamming From The War In Ukraine

John Oncea

By John Oncea, Editor

Ukraine and Russia flag with cracks, political conflict GettyImages-1372349037

The War in Ukraine is reshaping military strategy in real-time, from portable missile launchers to drones. It is also providing the U.S. military an opportunity to observe and evaluate the tools of war, including electronic warfare and all that encompasses.

The electromagnetic (EMS) spectrum is the range of all types of electromagnetic radiation – better known as light – including those the human eye can’t see. Two common types of electromagnetic radiation are the visible light that comes from a lamp and radio waves that come from a radio station. Other types of electromagnetic radiation are microwaves, infrared light, ultraviolet light, X-rays, and gamma rays.

One of history’s most famous telescopes – the Hubble Space Telescope – can view objects in more than just visible light, including ultraviolet, visible, and infrared light. These observations enable astronomers to determine certain physical characteristics of objects, such as their temperature, composition, and velocity, according to Hubblesite.

Astronomers employ the entire EMS when studying the universe, using radio waves and microwaves to pierce dense, interstellar clouds and infrared light to see through cold dust. Ultraviolet light traces the hot glow of stellar nurseries and is used to identify the hottest, most energetic stars and X-rays come from the hottest gas that contains atoms.

EMS And The DoD

Astronomy isn’t alone in using the EMS. The U.S. Department of Defense’s air, land, maritime, space, and cyberspace operations all use it for communications, navigation, radar, nonintrusive aircraft inspection, directed energy weapons, and electronic warfare. To better achieve this goal, the DoD enacted the 2020 Electromagnetic Spectrum Superiority Strategy’s Implementation Plan (EMSSS I-Plan) in July 2021.

According to a DoD press release, “The Strategy’s I-Plan provides the Department of Defense with the direction and executive oversight needed to achieve the Strategy’s vision of ‘freedom of action in the electromagnetic spectrum, at the time, place, and parameters of our choosing.’”

“In today’s modern battlefield, the joint force has to achieve EMS superiority,” said Navy Admiral Charles Richard, then commander of the U.S. Strategic Command. “We have gotten used to a process designed for permissive environments that are intended to minimize programmatic and technical risk at the expense of operational risk. One of my big functions inside the EMSSS I-Plan is to bring the operational risk component back into the department processes.”

The EMSSS I-Plan is a comprehensive strategy that aims to establish an EMS Enterprise across the DoD. It provides the necessary vision, leadership, and tools to achieve this goal and emphasizes the need for accountability and tangible results. It also prioritizes integrating EMS operations across the DoD, implementing governance and management reforms, addressing workforce issues, and ensuring a smooth transition from the Senior Designated Official and Electromagnetic Spectrum Operations Cross-Functional Team to enduring functions within the Department.

SIGINT, COMINT, ELINT: The Foundation

We noted earlier several ways the DoD is using EMS. Here, we take a look at its use in electronic warfare (EW), specifically radar jamming.

EW is a broad field that encompasses various techniques and technologies used to manipulate or exploit the EMS for military purposes. Important components of EW are signals intelligence (SIGINT), communications intelligence (COMINT), and electronic intelligence (ELINT), all used to gather information from electronic signals.

  • SIGINT refers to the collection and analysis of electronic signals, such as radio, radar, and other electronic emissions. This includes intercepting and decoding communication signals between military units, governments, or other entities. SIGINT can provide valuable information about an adversary's intentions, capabilities, and activities.
  • COMINT specifically focuses on the interception and analysis of communication signals. This includes monitoring radio transmissions, telephone conversations, email communications, and other forms of electronic communication. COMINT helps in understanding an adversary’s communication network, command structure, and key personnel.
  • ELINT, on the other hand, deals with the interception and analysis of non-communication electronic emissions, such as radar signals and electronic countermeasures. ELINT helps in identifying and characterizing radar systems, EW systems, and other electronic equipment used by an adversary.

In the context of EW, SIGINT, COMINT, and ELINT play crucial roles in electronic surveillance, reconnaissance, and intelligence gathering. These techniques can provide valuable information for military planning, threat assessment, and situational awareness.

You’re Jamming Me

EW encompasses a wide range of activities beyond just SIGINT, COMINT, and ELINT including electronic countermeasures to disrupt enemy communications and radar systems, electronic support measures to detect and analyze enemy emissions, and electronic attacks to jam or deceive enemy sensors and communication systems.

Electronic jamming, a form of EW that uses radio signals to interfere with an enemy's radar, is another modern warfare tool. “Jamming is intended to degrade the ability of radars or radios to perform their tasks, or even prevent them from doing so altogether,” writes Defense Advancement. “The jamming process also harnesses radio signals but does so in such a way as to attack these systems.

“Put simply, jamming uses artificially created radio interference offensively. An example of how jamming works can be witnessed when a car drives under a power line with its radio on. The sound of the radio suddenly becomes drowned out by interference. This is caused by the electromagnetic radiation from the powerlines.”

According to the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), there are two modes of jamming: spot and barrage. “Spot jamming is concentrated power directed toward one channel or frequency,” writes FAS. “Barrage jamming is power spread over several frequencies or channels at the same time. Jamming can be difficult, if not impossible to detect. For this reason, we must always be aware of the possibility of jamming and be able to recognize it.”

FAS writes the two most commonly encountered types of jamming are obvious and subtle jamming.

  • Obvious Jamming: This is normally very simple to detect. The more commonly used jamming signals random noise, stepped tones, spark, gulls, random pulse, wobbler, recorded sounds, and preamble jamming.
  • Subtle Jamming: Subtle jamming is not obvious with no sound being heard from receivers. They cannot receive an incoming friendly signal, even though everything appears normal to the radio operator. This is called squelch capture and is a subtle jamming technique. The radio operator can readily detect jamming in all other function control modes and the other modes must be checked. Often, we assume that our radios are malfunctioning instead of recognizing subtle jamming for what it is.

“Jamming has increased in sophistication as electronic warfare has developed and includes an array of tactics,” Defense Advancement writes. “Barrage jamming is performed against two or more frequencies. This can be useful when the aggressor does not know exactly which radio or radar frequencies their adversary is using. Nonetheless, they may know with reasonable certainty which waveband of frequencies they may be using. Spot jamming is performed against specific frequencies known to be in use.”

Jamming In Ukraine

“This is a war of technologies,” Colonel Ivan Pavlenko, chief of the Ukrainian General Staff's electronic and cyber warfare department, told the BBC.

“If you're losing in electronic warfare, your forces will turn into a 19th-century army,” adds Yaroslav Kalinin, chief executive of Infozahyst, a company that produces electronic warfare systems for the Ukrainian army. “You will be 10 steps behind your enemy.”

This includes jamming, a technology Russia has been focusing on in recent years. That focus has led to the development of Krasukha-4, which targets airborne and air defense radars; Zhitel, which suppresses satellite signals; and Leyer-3, a cellular and radio communications jammer.

Much to the Russians' surprise, much of this technology has been disappointing. Despite Russia's military might, Ukrainian air defense systems were able to successfully shoot down Russian jets, hindering Russia’s efforts to capture Kyiv quickly. Additionally, Russian forces were unable to disrupt communications, allowing the Ukrainian military to effectively organize their defenses. Although military satellite networks were jammed, cellular and internet communications remained largely unaffected.

“Russian systems are large unwieldy, vehicle-borne systems that are designed to be on the defensive," says Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at Hudson Institute. “And as a result, their EW systems weren't very agile, they weren't very fast and they weren't very numerous.”

The Russians learned from these early mistakes and our now relying on smaller, more mobile devices. Clark says Russia has deployed hundreds of mobile EW units ranging from GPS jammers to systems that suppress radar and prevent U.S. aircraft from identifying targets for Ukraine to attack.

“Russian systems such as Zhitel and Pole-21 are proving to be particularly effective to jam GPS and other satellite links,” writes BBC. “They can disable drones that direct artillery fire and carry out kamikaze attacks on Russian troops. Many of the sophisticated weapons provided to Ukraine by NATO countries are vulnerable to such jamming too because they use a GPS signal for navigation.”

“Zhitel can jam a GPS signal within 30km of the jammer,” Clark said. “For weapons like [U.S.-made] JDAM bombs, which use just a GPS receiver to guide it to the target, that's sufficient to lose its geolocation and go off target.”

Clark adds both sides are trying to develop countermeasures against jamming, including reprogramming weapons. “Before we strike with a precision-guided munition, we have to provide intelligence,” said Pavlenko. “Is there any suppression in that area? If that area is affected by a jamming signal, we have to find the jammer and destroy it, and only then use this weapon.”

What The U.S. Military Is Taking Away

Jamming is an important element of daily combat in Ukraine where it is considered the most cost-effective way to neutralize unmanned systems. It can disrupt enemy drone signals, forcing them to land and reducing the need for anti-aircraft missiles or guns.

It is also adding the playbook of the U.S. military, according to C4ISRNET. “Ukrainian forces are exploiting gaps in Russian jamming and spoofing capabilities, opening seams in which they make noticeable gains on the battlefield,” C4ISRNET reports Col. Josh Koslov, the leader of the 350th Spectrum Warfare Wing, as saying. “The agility being displayed by both parties, in the way that they’re executing operations in the spectrum, is awesome. Both sides are doing the cat-and-mouse game very, very well.”

And while Ukraine and Russia play their “cat-and-mouse game,” the U.S. is taking notes while working to reinvigorate its jamming ability in preparation for potential conflicts with China or Russia. “In the future, for us, if we do confront a peer, being agile and being rapid is the key to success in the spectrum,” said Koslov. “Not having control of spectrum leads to fatalities, leads to getting killed. And we’ve seen that time and time again in that conflict.”

C4ISRNET writes the U.S. Army is also working to deploy its in-development jammers as soon as possible based on the observable success of EW in the Ukraine war. “The Army in April tapped Lockheed Martin to fit Stryker combat vehicles, made by General Dynamics, with TLS-BCT technologies and begin planning for work aboard the Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle, a BAE Systems product,” notes C4ISRNET. “Lockheed in June also bested a rival to continue prototype work on TLS-EAB.”

Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology Doug Bush said, “We’ve got the programs underway. The Army is fundamentally reinvesting and rebuilding our tactical EW capability after that largely left the force, over the last 20 years. What we’re seeing in Ukraine is adding to that urgency to get those going.”