April 19, 2018

Russia’s Evolving Electronic Warfare Capability: Unlocking Asymmetric Potential

Since first initiating the reforms of the Russian Armed Forces in the fall of 2008, Moscow has developed a number of complimentary niche capabilities.

The unifying themes of these reforms have been asymmetry and the recognition that the means and methods of modern warfare have changed. In large part, this has meant the adoption and integration of command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) in the Armed Forces, itself a reflection of the move away from platform-based operations to operating in a networked-informational environment. One critical component of this shift has been in the level of progress in electronic warfare (Radioelektronnaya borba—EW) (see EDM, March 6). While this might appear abstract, Russian military scientists and top brass treat the task of EW development quite seriously, seeing it holistically as part of a greater effort to counter a high-technology adversary. Recent developments in this important field were addressed in an interview by the chief of the EW Forces, Major General Yury Lastochkin. His comments reinforce his published work and that of other Russian EW specialists, as well as shed fresh light on the potential deterrence value of these combined niche capabilities (Krasnaya Zvezda, April 16).

General Lastochkin’s interview in Krasnaya Zvezda marked the annual April 15 celebration of EW specialists. He placed EW priorities and capability in the context of fighting in a single information and communications space, with the importance of protecting force assets and targeting enemy C4ISR. Lastochkin highlighted the changed nature of modern warfare and role of EW in such an operational environment: “Traditional frontal clashes of large groupings of troops at the strategic and operational level are gradually disappearing; remote non-contact impact on the depth of the operational construction of the enemy becomes the main way to achieve the purpose of the operation [combat].” Lastochkin explained that in this information environment, distinctions blur between strategic, operational and tactical levels, adding, “In these conditions, asymmetric actions that make it possible to level out the enemy’s information superiority acquire special significance.” He elaborated that the probable adversary would seek dominance in the aerospace and information domains, which increases the potential threat to Russia’s security and enhances exponentially the role of EW (Krasnaya Zvezda, April 16).

Some of these themes appear frequently in articles authored by General Lastochkin in the official journal of the General Staff, Voyennaya Mysl (Military Thought). As the chief of the EW Forces, it is unsurprising to find his articles advocating EW advances and interests. One aspect of this in particular, and shared by other EW specialist officers, is his argument that the combat-support function should be raised for the EW Forces to become a full-fledged combat arm. This may not occur, but is shows the level of confidence in the potential disruptive power of Russia’s EW capabilities on an enemy’s ability to function (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, April 26, 2017).

Moreover, in one of Lastochkin’s co-authored articles in Voyennaya Mysl, this was again proposed with the supporting idea that operational art for the EW forces must further develop in the future. Noting the pivotal role played by electronic and IT assets in 21st century warfare, and outlining the extent to which these play an important role in the United States’ military, Lastochkin cautioned that “relying too much on high-information and electronic technologies made the course and outcome of combat actions increasingly dependent on the condition and functioning standards of computer information and computing networks, knowledge and databases, systems and assets of radio communication, radar, radio navigation used in systems of state and military control, reconnaissance, and control of weapons, particularly high-precision ones.” Such possible vulnerabilities, in his view, could be exploited using EW. But while he paid attention to the changing nature of warfare, his main agenda was to push a complimentary process to boost operational art in support of the evolution of the role played by EW (Voyennaya Mysl, September 2017, pp. 18–25).

In a similar article in Voyennaya Mysl, a group of Russian EW specialists considered the application of such capabilities in a tactical context, but still strongly advocated raising the EW Forces to an arm of service. At the tactical level, EW Forces mainly suppress enemy electronic assets. However, if used as a combat arm, new types of impact emerge, including “electromagnetic radiation (EMR) disablement, special program effects (SPE), and radiation self-guided weapon (RSGW) impact.” The authors argue that, “The electronic impact (EI) delivered by heterogeneous EW weapons and systems will be the main form of the EW forces and assets (troops) employment. The prospective EW assets implementing new types of impact will participate in it. EI will be jamming, combined, and disabling in terms of content. The electronic fire impact (EFI) that will be delivered by the EW forces independently by means of radiation self-guided weapons coming into operation will become a new form of employment” (Voyennaya Mysl, November 2017, pp. 15–20).

It is clear, therefore, that as Russian EW capability has evolved, leading specialists and senior officers are assessing and revising how best to boost its potential; and many seem to believe the way forward is to assign EW Forces a combat role rather than restrict them to combat support. Additionally, the military theory and the manner in which the Ground Forces play a lead role in advancing EW interests show the depth of EW input throughout the military. Indeed, EW plays a vital role in air defense, anti-access and area denial (A2/AD), as well as the wider effort to adopt C4ISR and operate in a high-technology information-based operational environment. Together, these capabilities are feeding into a growing asymmetric capability vis-à-vis a high-technology adversary that may also have a deterrence impact. These professional military articles and interviews by EW senior officers contain little reference to operations in Syria and Ukraine. But given the levels of EW experimentation in these theaters (see EDM, May 24, 2017; September 26, 2017), there is little doubt this is also influencing further niche development. The annual Moscow Conference on International Security again highlighted the markedly different outlook on the threat environment that is now commonplace among Russian defense and security officials (Mil.ru, accessed April 17; Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, April 13).

The Donald Trump administration’s careful avoidance of triggering a kinetic response from Russian forces in Syria over the April 14 precision strikes against Syria’s chemical weapons infrastructure underscores the idea that traditional fronts and platforms have given way to stand-off non-contact warfare. Russia’s military leadership has grasped this phenomenon and thus places growing emphasis on the electromagnetic spectrum as a domain of modern warfare.