Electronic warfare has emerged as a critical aspect of the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine, with Russia leading a major electronic warfare campaign against Ukrainian forces. According to experts, Russian jamming has significantly impacted Ukraine’s communications and the accuracy of US-provided weapons. The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) conducted an analysis revealing that Russian jamming has rendered the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) glide bombs and other smart weapons unreliable in hitting their targets.
Thomas Withington, a researcher at RUSI, explained that while jamming is not causing the JDAMs to completely malfunction, it is jeopardizing their accuracy. Upgrades to JDAM designed to counter jamming may mitigate the issue, but Russian electronic warfare systems possess the ability to overpower the GPS guidance signals from satellites. The sheer power of the jamming signal appears to be the primary challenge. Pentagon documents leaked in April further confirmed concerns about Russian jamming affecting the precision of American guided weapons, including the JDAM and HIMARS rockets.
The impact on the JDAM is particularly significant because it is considered a cost-effective smart bomb solution. By attaching fins and a GPS guidance system to traditional “dumb” bombs, Ukraine had expected to produce long-range guided weapons at a fraction of the cost of special precision-guided munitions. The JDAM Extended Range bombs sent to Ukraine reportedly offer a range of up to 50 miles, allowing launch aircraft to remain safely out of range of Russian air defenses. These GPS-guided munitions provided hope to Ukraine in countering Russian superiority.
However, it should come as no surprise that Russia is developing countermeasures to electronic warfare. As with all weapons, their effectiveness diminishes as the opponent adapts. Russia, like its Soviet predecessor, has dedicated significant efforts to developing a range of electronic warfare systems. Withington highlighted the Russian Army’s R-330Zh Zhitel as a notable example, specifically designed to disrupt GPS and satellite communication within certain wavebands. This jamming system covers the same wavebands used by the JDAM kits for U.S. GPS satellites.
Official documents viewed by Withington indicate that the R-330Zh Zhitel has a range of 18.6 miles and generates a strong jamming signal of 10kW. This signal strength surpasses that of the GPS signal from space, and it becomes stronger as the GPS receiver approaches the jamming antenna. The selective availability anti-spoofing module upgrade to the JDAM should theoretically ensure that it responds only to authorized military GPS signals. However, Russian jammers can still disrupt the signals using brute force jamming beams. They can intercept M-Code signals and transmit them with slight alterations to cause the JDAM to miss its target. Efforts to bypass Russian interference by using multiple GPS satellites can also be countered with multiple jammers.
Russia’s electronic warfare campaign extends beyond jamming GPS signals. It has disrupted Ukrainian radio communications and drone operations. The RUSI report suggests that Russian forces maintain a ratio of one major electronic warfare system per 10 kilometers of frontage, located approximately 7 kilometers from the frontline. This extensive jamming has resulted in a high frequency of Ukrainian drone losses. The report also reveals that Russian electronic warfare troops possess the capability to intercept and decrypt Ukrainian radio communications, including encrypted messages in real-time. This interception allows Russian commanders to send “pre-emptive warnings” to their units.
Despite the limitations of Russian jamming and electronic warfare, it remains a critical component of the ongoing conflict. Emitting jamming beams inadvertently discloses the location of jammers, and Ukraine has been successful in locating and destroying Russian systems. Moreover, the powerful jamming beams may also disrupt Russian GPS and radio communications. Nonetheless, US engineers will need to rethink how to safeguard JDAMs based on the current conflicts and adapt for future wars.