An underlying driver in the reform of the Russian Armed Forces, first initiated in the fall of 2009, has proved to be the adoption and adaption of “command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance” (C4ISR) capabilities to offer conventional options against a high-technology adversary. A key factor in the introduction of a Russian variant of the concept of network-centric warfare is the complete overhaul and modernization of its Electronic Warfare (Radioelektronnaya Borba—EW) inventory (see EDM, April 17, May 17). While considerable progress was made in this effort during 2009–2014, advances in Russian C4ISR and EW were exponentially boosted following Russia’s interventions in Ukraine and Syria. Not only have Russian pilots and various specialists benefited from the combat experience in Syria, but research and development (R&D) into EW has reaped massive rewards from the opportunity to trial and test an array of advanced systems in a complex operational warfighting environment. In this process, one of the chief benefactors has been the Aerospace Forces (Vozdushno Kosmicheskikh Sil—VKS), similarly tried and tested in combat over the past three years in operations over Syria. And now, evidence has emerged of a technological breakthrough for Russian EW capability that, when applied to airpower, offers a de facto stealth capability for some of its most modern fighter platforms (Pravda-tv.ru, June 9; see EDM, December 12, 2017).
The main proponents of EW are the Ground Forces, and EW units exist throughout the Russian army’s order of battle—from strategic to tactical levels—ranging from full EW brigades to companies in battalion echelons. EW centers are also found in the navy and the VKS, the latter of which having been at the forefront of military operations in Syria. Numerous EW assets have been moved to Syria for testing and to experiment with boosting air defenses for Russian forces deployed in theater as well as to build local anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capability. Vital testing in this context relates to the Khibiny EW complex, designed for the latest Sukhoi fighters and fighter-bombers. This breakthrough in EW technology promises better protection for these VKS platforms against enemy radars and missiles. The nature of the breakthrough lies in adopting a conceptual use of the advanced system to afford protection for an air grouping (Pravda-tv.ru, June 9).
The latest Khibiny EW complex will effectively “blind” enemy radars and satellites to the presence of a VKS air grouping, potentially crippling the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) air defenses in any kinetic contact between Russia and the Alliance. Normally, these Khibiny complexes are mounted on the wingtips of advanced Sukhoi platforms: Su-35S fighters, Su-34 bombers and Su-30SM fighters. On one wing-tip, the Khibiny system acts as a receiver to determine enemy radio and communications frequencies, while the second generates the jamming element. The system is automated and analyzes enemy signals before determining the best means of jamming. The latest Khibiny variant, the Khibiny-U, is mounted under the fuselage of the Su-30SM to provide broad coverage for an air grouping and boost the EW capability against high-technology adversaries. In the upgraded Khibiny-U, the entire capability is magnified to provide cover for an air grouping against enemy radars and space-based assets. According to the Russian daily Izvestia, with the introduction of the Khibiny-U as part of a VKS air grouping, NATO air defenses are rendered exposed and ineffective; the newest Khibiny EW complex offers a near-stealth capability for Russian VKS operations in any theater (Izvestia, June 9).
It is important to understand the nature of this reported Russian EW breakthrough—one example of the increasing advances in Russia’s adoption of C4ISR—with further Russian EW modernization of this type planned in the forthcoming decade. The Russian military leadership anticipates that, by 2020, more than 80 percent of its EW inventory will be modernized, with additional upgrades and further advances promised in the new State Armaments Program to 2027 (Izvestia, June 9; see EDM, May 17). As this process unfolds, the North Atlantic Alliance may continue to fall behind Russian EW capability, significantly reducing the conventional options it has in the event of a conflict with Russia.
The upgraded Khibiny-U is based on the operational experience gained by the VKS in Syria, deploying experimental versions of the new EW platform and drawing lessons from it. Of course, the existing Khibiny complexes largely relied on Soviet technology and development, but the latest variant in the Khibiny family is quite recent in terms of technology—despite the sanctions regime impacting the Russian defense industry. The wing-tip variety was designed for use on the Su-34 (L-175V Khibiny-10V) and the Su-35S (L-265 Khibiny-10M). Previous versions of the Khibiny EW complex were mounted on the wing-tips of the Su-35 and Su-34, but due to their weight they reduced these planes’ ammunition payloads. The idea of developing a single integrated system to offer protection for an air grouping is borrowed from the United States Air Force, which uses the EA-18 Growler to cover fighter groups. By mounting the new Khibiny-U under the Su-30SM, it effectively transforms the platform into an EW aircraft operating in support of a fighter group (Izvestia, June 9).
The R&D was carried out by the Kaluga Research Radio Engineering Institute. It first worked on such systems from 1977 to 1990. In 1995, it completed the first test cycle, and in 1997 the second test cycle allowed some procurement options. In 2013, Kaluga Research signed a contract to develop an EW system for the Su-30SM. However, it was not until 2014 that the Khibiny EW complex first entered service on the Su-34. Interestingly, also in 2014, a false news story emerged about the Khibiny “blinding” the USS Donald Cook, in the Black Sea, with the misleading reporting claiming it was used onboard an Su-24 (Topwar.ru, October 31, 2017). While the fabricated news story alleged an ability to “blind” the Aegis system, the real capability offered by the Khibiny-U protects small air groups from enemy radars and air defense, meaning virtual stealth cover for these groupings against potential adversaries.
With the new Khibiny complexes entering service in 2014, they began to feature in operational-strategic exercises involving VKS platforms. Indeed, in recent VKS exercises, the Khibiny EW complex for the Su-34 has been used in the Western Military District to test Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) against high-technology adversaries. These typically involve up to ten aircraft, with the hypothetical enemy unable to determine whether there is a single fighter or an air grouping conducting SEAD (Vesti, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, October 27, 2017). After four years of speculation, the latest advance in Russian EW technology should send a sobering message to NATO.