A critical element in the reform and modernization of the Russian Armed Forces over the past dozen years has been the exponential development of electronic warfare (EW) capabilities. Prior to the reforms initiated in the fall of 2008, the military’s existing EW capabilities were disparate, rudimentary and lacking in investment. But as a result of the continued efforts to modernize the Armed Forces, EW became an organic high-technology-based feature of Russian military approaches to modern warfare (see EDM, October 2, 2019). This capability is now being further tested in conflicts and exercises, with refinements benefiting from employing artificial intelligence (AI) and exploring ways to further EW capacity. These capabilities are regularly tested alongside other elements of the Armed Forces during combat training, with increased experimentation using AI and automation (Aex.ru, April 27, 2020).
On April 27, EW and air-defense units in the Southern Military District (MD) staged a joint exercise in Chechnya aimed at rehearsing the suppression of airborne navigation systems and control over enemy unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). By closely coordinating the actions of EW and air-defense units in the exercise, enemy UAVs were brought under control with the use of automated EW assets. According to a defense ministry statement: “The military took control of the drones of a conditional enemy in order to seize information. The military carried out the interception of drones using the latest automated electronic warfare systems” (Aex.ru, April 27).
The UAVs used by the hypothetical adversary for the purposes of the exercise scenario were Russian mini-drones that had entered service in the 58th Army in the Southern MD in 2019. UAV units used reconnaissance quadcopters as part of the exercise. The drills focused on strengthening air-defense capacity through closer alignment with EW units and exploiting EW capability to stop an enemy drone attack; this is consistent with Russian force-protection measures through coupling EW and air defenses against UAV threats in Syria (Aex.ru, April 27).
By prioritizing the development and transformation of EW capability within the Russian Armed Forces, Moscow has at its disposal a wide range of EW systems that can significantly impact the course of military operations in all domains of conflict, including space. Moscow-based military expert Alexei Leonkov notes the advances in the quantity and quality of Russia’s EW systems, and suggests the country is now a global leader in this field. “Western armies, until recently, believed that developing EW troops did not make sense; as a result, they are hopelessly behind. So the Russian EW systems have gone far ahead and, in fact, have no analogues in the world,” Leonkov asserts, adding, “The Russian army has adopted the local-action systems that protect aircraft, ships, [and] manpower over a limited area, neutralizing munition fuses, affecting reconnaissance systems, confusing homing heads, intercepting control systems of drones, and even those that affect space objects” (RIA Novosti, April 15).
Indeed, the advances in Russian EW technology and the application of EW in Moscow’s approaches to modern military operations is not restricted to any one area, but covers a broad spectrum from reconnaissance through to jamming enemy communications, with increased interest in both automation and AI technologies to boost the speed of action during conflict. Russian EW specialists are also examining ways to further develop EW capability against UAVs and particularly swarms of enemy strike UAVs. One aspect of this appears to be linked to finding ways to generate an EW-based electromagnetic pulse (EMP) to target an adversary’s strike systems (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, April 21). Leonkov suggests that Moscow will continue to invest in EW technology in the future due to the increasing role of information technology in the command and control of modern militaries, noting Washington’s growing wariness of Russia’s EW capabilities: “DARPA [US Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] believes that the main danger to space groups is the Russian electronic warfare systems, and the threat will only increase” (RIA Novosti, April 15).
Illustrative of such themes in EW development is the RB-109A Bylina EW system. According to Russia’s defense ministry, these were first tested during Zapad 2017, with large-scale deliveries to the Armed Forces to begin soon. The RB-109A Bylina will combine with AI, and the systems are reportedly able to independently calculate and choose ways to attack enemy structures. Bylina systems have been field tested by Russia’s Armed Forces in Ukraine and Syria. The equipping of EW units with this new advanced EW asset is scheduled for completion by 2025. These complexes are able to analyze the battlespace situation, detect and determine the nature of the enemy’s goals, and select a way to eliminate or suppress them, without the need for involvement by the system’s human operator. According to the editor-in-chief of Arsenal of the Fatherland, Viktor Murakhovsky, the RB-109A Bylina will boost the effectiveness of the current inventory of Russian EW systems by 40–50 percent (Tsargrad.tv, April 17).
On March 25, President Vladimir Putin ordered a snap inspection of the Armed Forces linked to the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Western and Central MDs staged a snap inspection of command-and-control bodies, formations and military units, including EW specialists. In the Central MD, EW units covered an area around a military field hospital, focusing on suppressing radio and telecommunications broadcasting. EW forces used the Pole-21 system to create hundreds of jamming posts during the exercise. Nonetheless, the press service of the Central MD made no comment on what COVID-19 contingency would merit the use of EW capabilities to effectively cut off a quarantined local population (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, March 31).
While Russian EW specialists correctly identify considerable advances in the EW capability within the Armed Forces, its real strength does not merely lie in technological advances. It is rooted in the organizational matrix, which spreads EW units and specialists across all layers and levels of the military, through arms and branches of service, and down from strategic to operational and tactical levels: Russian commanders in maneuver brigades do not need to search far for their EW support. In terms of the technology priorities, it seems that EW development centers on automation and the exploitation of AI—both factors aimed at facilitating speed of action during operations.