The apparent surge in electronic warfare attacks is just the latest example of the Kremlin’s hybrid campaign against US troops in the country.
The U.S. military has reportedly seen a spike in Russian forces in Syria jamming the GPS receivers and other data links on its small unmanned aircraft flying over the country. But it’s unclear whether this reflects any significant change in Russia’s overall strategy amid evidence that the Kremlin has been harassing American aircraft over the country in this way to some degree for years, which The War Zone was among the first to reveal.
On April 10, 2018, NBC News, citing anonymous U.S. government sources, reported that Russia had been launching electronic warfare attacks against unspecified American unmanned planes for weeks. This increased activity came after a series of indiscriminate Syrian government poison gas attacks on rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of the capital Damascus. Those atrocities culminated in a strike on April 7, 2018 that left dozens dead and hundreds injured, which has prompted the United States and its allies to threaten some form of retaliation.
The unnamed officials told NBC that the jamming was having an “operational impact” and that the Russian equipment was sophisticated enough to break through a number of existing countermeasures, including some jamming-resistant components. “The U.S. military maintains sufficient countermeasures and protections to ensure the safety of our manned and unmanned aircraft, our forces and the missions they support,” Eric Pahon, a Pentagon spokesman, said in response to the outlet’s request for additional information, refusing to confirm or deny the reports.
Though we don’t know what type of U.S. military drones the Russians have been targeting, from the available description these sound like catapult- and hand-launched unmanned aircraft that American special operators, and supporting conventional forces, are almost certainly using in Syria for short-range surveillance missions. These typically carry electro-optical video cameras, but some, such as the AeroVironment RQ-20A Puma and the Boeing Insitu MQ-27A ScanEagle can carry infrared optics and miniaturized signals intelligence equipment.
But Russia’s capabilities to jam and intercept video feeds from this category of drones are well established at this point. The country has a wide array of man-portable and vehicle-mounted electronic warfare systems that are reportedly capable of jamming transmissions and also feeding false information into networks, including “spoofing” GPS signals and potentially sending parties and vehicles off their intended course.
There have been reports of such activity in Ukraine, where the Kremlin is actively supporting an insurgency against the government in Kiev, since 2014. In December 2016, it emerged that Ukraine’s forces were especially disappointed in hand-launched RQ-11B Raven drones they had received from the United States. Russian troops, and the separatists they supported, knocked down those drones with electronic warfare assets and downloaded video footage, which showed the layout and location of Ukrainian positions.
The video below shows Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine showing off a captured RQ-11B Raven drone that they claimed to have brought down using an electronic warfare attack.
In Syria specifically, there have been increasing indications that the U.S. military is concerned broadly about the potential for GPS jamming or other disruptions with the navigational network. The War Zone was first to report that at least one weekly U.S. Air Force intelligence summary in 2016, which we obtained in a heavily redacted form via the Freedom of Information Act, included an entire section devoted to the issue.
More recently, we were first to report that the U.S. Army was adding anti-jam equipment to a fleet of discreet special operations spy planes in response to operational requirements. Three of these planes had been flying over Iraq as of 2016 – one crashed outside Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region that year, due to engine failure – and may now be conducting operations over Eastern Syria.
The Russians themselves have made no secret that they have deployed these assets to the country, either. After an unprecedented mass rebel drone attack on its Khmeimim air base and naval outpost in Tartus, both in western Syria, in January 2018, the Kremlin said that it had been able to neutralize some of the unmanned attackers using electronic warfare systems.
It’s worth noting that both nation state military forces and non-state actors are steadily expanding their use of small drones, including in small groups and semi-autonomous swarms. As such, Russia is hardly alone in developing countermeasures against those types of unmanned aircraft.
And it’s hard to imagine that Russia would not take advantage of this capability in its larger effort to impede American activities in Eastern Syria, which is staunchly opposes. Jamming the short-range drones limits the ability American troops to gain a better understanding of the situation around them, which can in turn only hamper their mission planning process and increase risks for them during more extended operations.
Jamming would also be a way to help keep U.S. unmanned aircraft out of Western Syria, where Assad’s regime is more firmly in control and where his forces continue to commit crimes against humanity with impunity. Still, manned aircraft from the American-led coalition fighting ISIS long ago stopped flying in that part of the country and the dubious de-confliction line Russia and the United States have agreed to in order to separate their operations should preclude any drones from missions there, as well.
In addition, the Russian government has already shown it is willing to commit nebulous proxy forces to direct combat against U.S. personnel and their local Syrian partners. Those mercenary groups proved to be disastrously ineffective against American firepower in an incident in February 2018, which may have forced the Kremlin to reassess the utility of attempting to rely on these groups for any high-end fighting.
Jamming the linkages between a drone and its controllers on the ground is also a relatively low-risk proposition for Russia. If it succeeds in destroying the aircraft it is unlikely that an American service member will die in the process, reducing the likelihood of any immediate escalation. The largely opaque relationship actual Russian troops in the country have with private military contractors, militias aligned with Assad, Iranian personnel, and Syrian government forces give the Kremlin significant avenues to deny any responsibility whatsoever.
But while Russia’s GPS jamming and spoofing in Syria is definitely a cause for concern, especially given the steadily worsening ties between the Kremlin and the U.S. government, the full extent of Russian capabilities in this regard in the country and whether there has been any actual shift in policy remain unclear. The sources told NBC News that larger unmanned aircraft, such as MQ-9 Reapers and MQ-1 Predators, remained unaffected, which might be an indication that the electronic warfare attacks had been relatively localized and not complex enough to jam those drones’ microwave satellite communications data links.
This would make sense given the increasingly close proximity of American and Russian-backed forces in Syria. U.S. forces throughout the country have been taking up more robust postures with added defenses in recent months in response to threats from various groups.
It also potentially points to the use of more discreet and shorter-range systems that are easier to conceal. This would also help Russia deflect accusations that it is actively targeting U.S. troops in any way.
Beyond that, there’s nothing to automatically indicate that the electronic warfare systems the Russians are using in Syria could ward off any larger air and missile strikes the U.S. military or its allies might launch against Assad in response to his chemical weapons attacks, at least not by themselves. Those assets could be worrisome within the context of the larger integrated Russian-Syrian air defense network, but it’s hardly a risk the U.S. government could be unaware of at this point. The U.S. military is aware of the potential difficulties of operating in a GPS degraded or outright denied environment, too, and is increasingly training to mitigate those dangers.
The truth is, as we at The War Zone have been noting for months, that there is something of a low-level fight between Russia and the United States in Syria already, as well as elsewhere in the world. It’s a hybrid conflict that involves the heavy use of proxy forces and information warfare to create conflicting narratives about what’s actually happening on the ground.
Jamming and otherwise harassing small U.S. drones remotely, as well as potentially reducing confidence in GPS-enabled systems, is entirely in line with this over-arching concept of operations. From everything we know, it’s been happening and will likely to continue happening, at least sporadically, for the foreseeable future as the Kremlin continues to agitate for a complete withdrawal of American forces from Syria.
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