Print Save as PDF +A A -A
8 January 2016

Do not underestimate the Russian military

Electronic warfare that the West needs to catch up to 

Much has been written about the weakness of the Russian military. Commentators describe it as a "paper tiger" that would not be effective against the more advanced weaponry of NATO. Even President Obama boasts that the American military is superior to Russia’s.

When it comes to traditional conventional weapons there is much truth to these assertions. However, these claims of Washington’s military superiority overlook a key fact: In the event of a war, Moscow possesses some critical asymmetrical advantages vis-à-vis the United States that the Kremlin would surely seek to exploit.

Russia’s electronic warfare strategy in Ukraine is one example of this. According to a recent article in Foreign Policy, after Russian electronic warfare equipment began arriving in Ukraine, Ukrainian troops noticed a problem: their phones and radios were unusable for hours at a time, essentially cutting off units’ ability to communicate with each other. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) also felt the effect of Russia’s electronic warfare capabilities. On at least three separate occasions the OSCE reported its monitoring drones were subjected to military-grade electronic warfare while flying over territory controlled by the Russian-supported separatists. In each case, they were rendered blind and forced to end their missions.

Russia’s use of electronic warfare in Ukraine represents just the tip of the iceberg:

  • In Syria, Russia’s Krasukha-4 - a jamming system mounted on a simple four axle military truck – shields Russian forces from NATO spying, and is reportedly able to neutralize the United States’ low-Earth orbit (LEO) spy satellite.
  • Russia's Richag-AV radar jamming system fits on helicopters, ships and other military equipment and is reportedly capable of jamming an adversary’s advanced weapons systems as far as several hundred kilometers away. 
  • Russia is also developing a new electronic warfare system which it claims could disable American cruise missiles and other advanced precision guided weaponry employed by the United States’ Military.  

Russia’s advanced electronic warfare capabilities elucidates a broader point. The US Military’s superiority depends on advanced communications and electronics, yet these expensive advanced systems are highly susceptible to the Russian’ advanced jamming abilities.

These systems are also much less expensive to produce than many of the advanced weapons deployed by the United States. For example, a single Richag-AV radar system costs only $10 million – expensive in absolute terms but a cheap asymmetrical capability in relative terms.

While the commander of U.S. Army units in Europe, Lt. General Ben Hodges, calls Russia’s electronic warfare capabilities “eye-watering,” Russia’s cyber warfare capabilities are the Kremlin’s ultimate asymmetric tool. While Chinese hackers receive the majority of attention, the United States’ Director of National Intelligence James Clapper believes Russia’s cyber threat exceeds the Chinese one, using stealthier and more advanced cyberattack methods.

The Russian military recently established a dedicated cyber command in preparation for a future conflict, and reportedly hacked both the State Department and the White House. Although the Russian cyber penetration explored only unclassified portions of the White House network, the attackers were still able to gain access to the President’s daily schedule.

Moreover, this represents just the tip of the iceberg. Far more worryingly, Russian hackers have also been actively exploring the United States’ infrastructure vulnerabilities. In recent Congressional testimony, Clapper revealed that Russian hackers had successfully penetrated the industrial control systems which monitor and access critical U.S. infrastructure such as water and energy systems. By remotely accessing these systems, hackers could theoretically take down the United States’ power grid.

This is not solely an American problem. A 2014 report from leading cybersecurity firm Symantec reveals that European infrastructure sits squarely in the crosshairs of Russian cyber hackers as well.  The attackers, dubbed Dragonfly by Symantec researchers, penetrated major energy firms in such sectors as electricity generation, pipeline operators and energy industry industrial equipment providers. Only 24 percent of the attacks struck the United States, with the remainder occurring largely in Spain, France, Italy, Germany, Turkey, Poland and Romania. According to Symantec, if the attackers “had used the sabotage capabilities open to them, (they) could have caused damage or disruption to energy supplies in affected countries.” Translation – the European grid is vulnerable as well.

Those doubting the serious threat posed by Russia’s cyberattack capabilities need only look at last month’s unprecedented attack that took down Ukraine's Prykarpattyaoblenergo power grid for approximately six hours. Analysts from the American cyber intelligence firm iSight Partners attributed the attack to the Russian hacking group ‘Sandworm’. While it’s unclear whether Sandworm is working directly for the Russian government, iSight's director of espionage analysis, John Hultquist, says at a minimum “it is a Russian actor operating with alignment to the interest of the state."

Aside from the technical sophistication of these attacks, what’s also troubling is that they cannot be easily traced back to their exact origin. According to Admiral Michael Rogers, head of the United States’ National Security Agency, these penetrations are not always executed by governments, and sophisticated Russian cyber gangs are used to "obscure, if you will, their (nation-states) finger prints."  The ability to obscure an attack’s origin, in turn, raises doubts about when there should be a government-to-government response – perhaps even of a kinetic variety – or whether it should be treated as a civilian domestic issue. If this sounds suspiciously like the “plausible deniability” approach behind Russia’s now widely discussed “hybrid warfare”, that’s because it is.

Needless to say, Russia is not the only country with advanced cyber capabilities. The United States military also established its own cyber command, and – as the Stuxnet attack which disabled Iranian nuclear centrifuges demonstrated – sophisticated Western cyber attack capabilities exist as well. Likewise, in a real conflict, NATO would surely deploy electronic counter counter measures (ECCM) against Russian electronic warfare systems such as the Khibin or Richag-AV.  Most importantly, none of this means the West should assume a war with Russia is inevitable. It’s not – and concerted diplomacy must always seek to avert such a catastrophic scenario. Nevertheless, there are a number of things the West should do immediately.

First, when it comes to electronic warfare, NATO – especially the United States –remains horribly under-resourced, with a grand total of only 813 troops committed to this mission. The United States can spend ten billion dollars on its next generation aircraft carrier and 500 billion dollars on the flawed F-35 fighter, but if these weapons’’ advanced electronics risk being disabled by an opponent’s weapons systems at a fraction of the cost, then Americans’ overall advantage in firepower is negated. As Colonel Jeffrey Church, the U.S. Army’s chief of electronic warfare noted, Russia has “companies, they have battalions, they have brigades that are dedicated to the electronic warfare mission.” NATO should embark on a crash course to increase its own electronic warfare capabilities.

Second, NATO must confront the fact that its potential adversaries’ cyber capabilities represent a truly existential threat. Russia’s 2010 Military Doctrine notes the "intensification of the role of information warfare" and assigns its development as a national priority. Moreover, Russia aside, the United States’ also considers China, Iran and North Korea as the primary nation state cyber threats.

While countries like Russia and China would surely think twice about launching a “cyber-911” strike during a crisis, an unstable state like North Korea might not – especially if reclusive leader Kim-Jong Un believed his regime’s hold on power was threatened. Moreover, as cyber hacking continues its global proliferation, contemplating what terrorist groups like ISIS or al-Qaeda might try to do is frightening.

Western countries should therefore follow Israel's lead and place the development of cyber defense at the very top of their priorities. An American led “Cyber Manhattan Project” should be assigned the highest priority, even if this means cutting budgets for other weapons systems. 

61 percent of American cybersecurity experts believe that by 2025 a major cyber attack causing “widespread harm to a nation’s security and capacity to defend itself and its people” will occur. If this is not a warning the West will heed, then it’s hard to imagine what is.