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Opinion Russia is losing on the electronic battlefield

Damaged radar arrays and other equipment outside Mariupol, Ukraine, on Feb. 24. (Sergei Grits/AP)
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Among Russia’s most costly mistakes when it invaded Ukraine was the expectation that it would dominate the electronic warfare part of the battle. Instead, Russia has stumbled and lost its way in the little-known realm of intercepting and jamming communications, an increasingly essential element of military success.

Russia’s unexpected failure on the electronic battlefield offers a case study in what has gone wrong for Moscow since the invasion began Feb. 24. The Russians overestimated their own capabilities, underestimated Ukraine’s — and didn’t reckon on the power of NATO military support for Kyiv. These failures left Russia’s forces — and even some of its top generals — vulnerable to attack.

“It was a combination of Russian arrogance and Ukrainian ingenuity,” retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges argues, explaining Moscow’s reversals on this front. Hodges commanded U.S. Army troops in Europe from 2014 to 2018 and has emerged as 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 aim is to attack an adversary by manipulating the electromagnetic spectrum — through jamming, intercepting or altering communications, radar, GPS or other signals. This is the 21st-century version of what one of Britain’s chief scientists during World War Two described as the “wizard war.”

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Russia’s vulnerability was vividly demonstrated this past weekend when it was reported that Maj. Gen. Andrei Simonov, among his country’s leading electronic war specialists, was killed in a Ukrainian artillery strike on a command post near Izyum. The fact that Ukraine could strike such a sensitive position illustrates its surprising mastery of precision targeting and attack.

Ukraine has tapped into Russian communications, blocked its signals, blinded its surveillance, and captured some its most advanced EW systems, experts say. The United States and its NATO partners have provided crucial EW equipment and training. But American experts say it’s the Ukrainians themselves who adapted these high-tech weapons to protect their homeland.

Ukraine’s success has been remarkable in part because of the widespread initial expectation among U.S. 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. U.S. commanders feared that Ukrainian units would be isolated and unable to communicate in this electronic fog of war.

Kyiv rebuilt its capabilities after it suffered bitter setbacks during Russia’s 2014 and 2015 attacks on eastern Ukraine. Russian EW success back then was dazzling, and some senior Pentagon officials feared it would be repeated this year. But as Russian commanders prepared for the 2022 invasion, they made two blunders: They assumed that the Ukrainian military had not advanced significantly since 2015, and they ignored the impact of equipment and training provided by NATO.

The United States after 2015 began supplying Ukraine with secure L3Harris radios that couldn’t easily be jammed, unlike the old Soviet-era equipment that Ukraine had been using. There’s an interesting footnote here: L3Harris radios were among the military equipment that President Donald Trump withheld from Ukraine while he was trying to obtain political favors from President Volodymyr Zelensky in 2019, as I reported at the time.

The Ukrainians learned to use these modern tools of war at a training base — known as the Joint Multinational Training Group-Ukraine— that 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 that U.S. commanders learned so much from watching the Ukrainians prepare to fight in an EW-contested battlespace that they revised the U.S. Army’s own training practices in exercises in Hohenfels, Germany.

The Russian way of war on the electronic battlefield suffers from some of the same limitations that have hindered Russian forces generally, U.S. military experts say. The Russian systems are big and best suited to static positions, rather the multipronged mobile offensive that Russia launched in February. Russian systems operated well in the tight battle zone of Donbas in 2014, and they may repeat that success in the new Donbas campaign that began last month.

Russia’s centralized, top-down command structure also hindered its EW forces in making quick adaptations; there weren’t any Russian noncommissioned officers who could make speedy fixes. And because the Russians lacked total air supremacy over Ukraine, their EW planes often remained in safe territory in Russia and Belarus — which limited signals collection and jamming capabilities.

When their fancy communications equipment broke down, the Russians resorted to cellphones on Ukrainian networks, which revealed not just their plans but their locations — allowing precise attacks. Another setback was Ukraine’s capture of some of Russia’s most sensitive EW equipment, including part of an advanced Krasukha-4 array, which the Ukrainians quickly tried to re-engineer and turn back against the Russians.

When the history of the Ukraine war is finally written, the chapter on electronic warfare may be one of the most telling — and one where U.S. assistance was both least visible and most helpful.