The Invisible War in Ukraine Being Fought Over Radio Waves

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A radio frequency graphic on a computer screen with numbers and a chart.
A visualization of the rapidly-changing frequencies of the Himera military radio, which features signal-hopping technology that makes it difficult to jam.Credit…Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times

The Invisible War in Ukraine Being Fought Over Radio Waves

Using electromagnetic waves to flummox and follow smarter weapons has become a critical part of the cat-and-mouse game between Ukraine and Russia. The United States, China and others have taken note.

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Paul Mozur and

  • Nov. 19, 2023

The drones began crashing on Ukraine’s front lines, with little explanation.

For months, the aerial vehicles supplied by Quantum Systems, a German technology firm, had worked smoothly for Ukraine’s military, swooping through the air to spot enemy tanks and troops in the country’s war against Russia. Then late last year, the machines abruptly started falling from the sky as they returned from missions.

“It was this mystery,” said Sven Kruck, a Quantum executive who received a stern letter from Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense demanding a fix.

Quantum’s engineers soon homed in on the issue: Russians were jamming the wireless signals that connected the drones to the satellites they relied on for navigation, leading the machines to lose their way and plummet to earth. To adjust, Quantum developed artificial intelligence-powered software to act as a kind of secondary pilot and added a manual option so the drones could be landed with an Xbox controller. The company also built a service center to monitor Russia’s electronic attacks.

“All we could do is get information from the operators, try to find out what wasn’t working, test and try again,” Mr. Kruck said.

Winston Churchill popularized as the “battle of the beams.” In the Cold War, the Soviet Union invested heavily in electronic weapons to gain an asymmetric advantage against the missiles and planes from the United States.

In recent decades, the use of electronic attack and defense has been more lopsided. In the Iraq war in the 2000s, the United States used gadgets called jammers to create so much radio noise that improvised explosive devices could not communicate with their remote detonators. More recently, Israel has jumbled GPS signals in its airspace with electronic warfare systems to confuse would-be attacks from drones or missiles.

a recent essay by Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, Ukraine’s top military commander. “Widespread use of information technology in military affairs” would be key to breaking what has become a stalemate in the conflict with Russia, he wrote.

The techniques have turned the war into a proxy laboratory that the United States, Europe and China have followed closely for what may sway a future conflict, experts said.

Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, raised the topic of electronic warfare this year in prepared remarks for a Congressional hearing. NATO countries have expanded programs to buy and develop electronic weapons, said Thomas Withington, an electronic warfare expert at the Royal United Services Institute, a British security think tank.

Russian tanks rolled toward Kyiv in February 2022, the Russian military initially made good on its reputation as one of the world’s best at electronic warfare. It used powerful jammers and decoy missiles to inundate Ukrainian air defenses, leaving Ukraine reliant on aircraft to fight off Russian planes.

The electronic weapons do not appear dangerous at first glance. They are typically satellite dishes or antennas that can be mounted on trucks or set up in fields or on buildings. But they then beam out electromagnetic waves to track, trick and block sensors and communication links that guide precision weapons and allow for radio communications. Just about every communications technology relies on electromagnetic signals, be it soldiers with radios, drones connecting to pilots or missiles linked to satellites.

One basic but effective tool is a jammer, which disrupts communications by sending out powerful signals at the same frequencies used by walkie-talkies or drones to cause so much disturbance that beaming a signal is impossible. Jamming is akin to blasting heavy metal in the middle of a college lecture.

Iranian Shahed drones, which are long-range unmanned aerial vehicles that have been used to hit cities deep inside the country, said Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s digital minister.

At testing ranges outside Kyiv, drone makers pit their craft against electronic attack weapons. In a field in central Ukraine in August, Yurii Momot, 53, a former Soviet Union special forces commander and a founder of the electronic warfare firm Piranha, showed a new anti-drone gun built for the conflict.

The guns have a checkered performance in the war, but Mr. Momot’s version worked. Pointing it at a DJI Mavic, a common cheap reconnaissance drone, he pulled the trigger. The drone hovered motionless. Its navigation system had been swamped by a burst of radio signals from the gun.

Paul Mozur is the global technology correspondent for The Times, based in Taipei. Previously he wrote about technology and politics in Asia from Hong Kong, Shanghai and Seoul. More about Paul Mozur