Russia Steadily Cultivating Electronic Warfare While U.S., NATO Lag Behind

U.S. deprioritized investment in electronic warfare capabilities in past two decades

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin / Getty Images
February 1, 2018

Russia has steadily improved its electronic warfare capabilities to prepare for potential conflict with the West, while the United States and its NATO partners have suffered a lapse in training for battle against regional powers amid ongoing counterterrorism operations, according to a leading analyst of Moscow's military developments.

Pentagon officials have warned that future wars will be fought using unseen weapons, like electromagnetic waves that disrupt radio communications or jam global positioning systems and drones, to cripple enemy forces. These electronic warfare capabilities operate in an invisible battle space called the electromagnetic spectrum, or EMS.

The nearly two-decade American-led campaign against insurgent groups that use relatively unsophisticated weaponry has forced the United States to deprioritize investment in this realm. Defense officials eyeing Russian offensives in Ukraine and Syria are now concerned that the U.S. military has lost its edge in countering and waging electronic warfare against near-peer adversaries.

"[NATO does] not exercise to put forces into an EMS-contested battle space, the Russians do, and they feel they're making advances in this area that gives them an injection of confidence," Roger McDermott, a senior research fellow in war studies at King's College London, said Monday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

The Kremlin most recently demonstrated its electronic warfare capabilities earlier this month when Russian military hackers used cyberware to take out several armed drones that attacked two of its military bases in western Syria.

In Ukraine, Russia has deployed an array of hybrid tools to deny Kiev the use of information space, including advanced jamming technologies to shutdown government communications and cyber attacks against critical infrastructure.

"The Russian military for many years has regarded the EMS as a lethal space; it's only now that we're seeing a closing of the gap between the capabilities, the procurement, and their military thinking," McDermott said. "It should be no surprise for us to come to the conclusion that the Russian general staff see the EMS as a potential Russian war fighting domain."

Michael Kofman, a senior research scientist in Russian affairs at CNA, a nonprofit research institute, said in remarks at CSIS that Moscow is training in a heavily contested EMS environment under the assumption that the United States and NATO militaries will ultimately "wake up" and bolster its electronic warfare capabilities.

In a new U.S. intelligence directorate, the Joint Chiefs of Staff warned Russia and China are developing weapons capable of "severely disrupting or destroying" all American satellites in the next several years.

The Pentagon's Defense Science Board warned in March that "advances and proliferation in advanced electronic warfare … capabilities threaten our ability to maintain information superiority."

"This reality should be considered a crisis to be dealt with immediately," the board wrote.

Published under: Military , Russia