Russia's 'invisible killer' makes it difficult to guide Ukraine's weapons

The jamming capacity of Russian electronic warfare systems is so strong that NATO-aided NATO bombs and bullets cannot hit their targets.

The UK’s Royal Research Institute for Defense and Security (RUSI) recently released an analysis showing that Russia’s electronic warfare activity is becoming a growing threat to Western smart weapons aid to Ukraine, especially the US JDAM-guided bomb.

“Russian jamming does not stop JDAM bombs from working, but affects their accuracy,” wrote expert Thomas Withington in the RUSI report.

Although the US can upgrade the anti-jamming feature of JDAM bombs, American and Western precision-guided weapons can be disabled when the Russian electronic warfare system, which is likened to an “invisible killer” monitor” on the battlefield, interferes with GPS navigation signals from satellites.

In classified documents leaked in April, the Pentagon expressed concern that Russian jamming systems are reducing the accuracy of US-guided weapons, including JDAM bombs and rocket-guided rockets HIMARS.

Experts consider the impact on JDAM to be particularly large because it is the simplest and cheapest smart bomb that the US has transferred to Ukraine. The JDAM is an old-fashioned conventional bomb fitted with a directional wing and GPS navigation system for increased accuracy and significant cost savings compared to other smart weapons.

Ukraine can produce long-range guided weapons by attaching JDAM modifications to old-fashioned bombs at a fraction of the cost of building new precision long-range bombs and munitions that they lack.

The JDAM-ER version increases the range and is capable of hitting targets up to 80 km away, allowing Ukrainian fighters to launch attacks from outside the range of some Russian air defense complexes.

This bomb, along with the HIMARS rocket and other guided weapons that the West initially donated to, was expected to be an effective tool for Ukraine to balance Russia’s firepower advantage.

However, after the initial losses, the Russian forces seem to have found a way to counter these high-precision weapons with electronic warfare, which the Russian military has spent a lot of effort Developing.

Withington said that R-330Zh Zhitel, a Russian truck-mounted mobile electronic warfare complex, is designed to disrupt GPS signals and satellite connections in the 100 MHz to 2 GHz frequency range.

“The American JDAM conversion kits use GPS receivers on the 1.164-1.575 GHz range. The entire range is within the jamming range of the Zhitel complex,” he said.

Zhitel’s operating range is up to more than 46 km, with jamming power reaching 10 kW, significantly stronger than GPS signals from space. “The closer the GPS receiver on the JDAM bomb or the HIMARS rocket is to the Zhitel’s antenna, the stronger the jamming signal,” Withington explained.

Russia's 'invisible killer' makes it difficult to guide Ukraine's weapons
Russia’s R-330Zh Zhitel complex during a drill in July 2018. Photo: Russian Defense Force

In theory, JDAM’s anti-jamming module, developed in the 2000s, can ensure that this guided bomb only receives military GPS signals encoded according to the US military’s M-Code standard. However, Russian electronic warfare complexes can still overload the JDAM’s GPS signal with powerful jamming beams.

Russia can also intercept the M-Code signal, then edit and retransmit it to the GPS receiver on the JDAM bomb, causing the bomb to miss its target. Using GPS signals from multiple satellites at the same time to avoid interference could backfire when Russia deploys multiple electronic warfare groups to intervene.

The attempt to jam GPS signals is part of Russian forces’ large-scale electronic warfare campaign on the Ukrainian battlefield. The operation also disrupted radio communications and the operation of Ukrainian unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

“Russian forces currently place electronic warfare systems on the front lines in the form of main stations 10 km apart. They are usually located about 7 km from the front line,” according to the RUSI report. This jamming activity costs Ukraine up to 10,000 UAVs of all kinds per month.

The RUSI report also assesses that the Russian electronic warfare force can intercept and decode Ukrainian radio communications. Russia repeatedly intercepted the radio signals of Ukrainian units requesting artillery fire support, allowing Russian commanders to immediately warn their units of an imminent attack to give them time to hide.

However, Russia’s electronic warfare operations also reveal some limitations. RUSI experts said that some Zhitel complexes were exposed when sending jamming signals, which could cause Ukraine to detect and attack them. In addition, strong jamming beams sometimes disrupt the Russian forces’ radio communications and satellite navigation.

“Russia’s GLONASS satellite navigation system transmits some signals similar to GPS,” Withington said, adding that “there is evidence that Russian units frequently mistakenly ambush their comrades whenever active electronic warfare force.”

According to this expert, the phenomenon of “our troops shooting our own troops” occurs because the Russian electronic warfare forces, when suppressing the enemy, are less concerned about their activities disrupting the signal of your unit.

Withington said that JDAM has become increasingly ineffective in Ukraine because of Russia’s electronic warfare operations, but that does not mean it has become obsolete because war is always a technological race between parties to find ways to overcome the problem each other.

“American engineers may have to think about how to ensure the operational capability of the JDAM bomb in a future war, based on the experience they have gained from the Russia-Ukraine conflict,” the expert concluded.