Evidence of Russian communications in Ukraine indicates that the modernisation of the Russian Armed Forces has been troubled, causing operational and tactical challenges.
Russia’s war in Ukraine has been marked by its apparent lack of coordination and an ostensibly flawed plan. Russian forces have been observed moving deep into Ukraine, only to be cut off by a lack of fuel, vehicle breakdowns, and ultimately Ukrainian forces. Open-source intelligence and Ukrainian reports suggest that radio communications across the Russian forces are poor, leading to makeshift solutions including the use of unencrypted high frequency (HF) radio for long-range communications and mobile phones to communicate. There is some evidence that Russian soldiers have deployed with more advanced software-defined radios (SDR) such as the R-187P1 Azart and R-168-5UN-2 tactical radios that were carried by a Russian airborne soldier captured near Kyiv. However, the impression provided by the Russian Ministry of Defence (MoD) over the years has been that this equipment was widespread and that the majority of the Russian Armed Forces (RuAF) were operating digital radios and systems designed to facilitate planning and decision-making.
The R-187P1 Azart is a sixth-generation digital tactical SDR with built-in encryption designed to provide Russian troops with secure and jam-resistant communications. It operates in the very high frequency (VHF)/ultra high frequency (UHF) bands, has a range of 18 km in ground communications depending on configuration, can be used as a repeater station and can utilise GLONASS or GPS to provide positioning. The radios appear to have been delivered for the first time in 2017 to the 90th Guards Tank Division and were provided to other units thereafter, with claims of 300 radios delivered to a unit in the Leningrad region. The R-187P1 serves alongside the R-168 Akveduk family of fifth-generation tactical digital radios, which is also designed to provide uninterrupted communications in an electromagnetically challenging environment. The family has many variants, including HF and VHF systems designed to provide communications up to 350 km and 20 km respectively while mounted in a command vehicle. The radios were introduced by 2000, and deliveries were reported through to 2016 and beyond.
It is possible that the delivery of the Azart radios has been troubled by corruption. Reports from 2021 observed that senior military figures and the Azart’s manufacturer were under investigation for fraud and embezzlement. At least some of the radios had been manufactured in China before elements were added in Russia, the defendants claimed. Russian forums discussing the radios also feature complaints of ‘childhood illnesses’ and short battery lives for the Azart family, as well as further evidence of Chinese parts in the radios. It is not unusual for radio families to experience difficulties when introduced into service; the UK’s BOWMAN is no exception to this. However, Russia’s MoD has made various claims about the capabilities of its command and control (C2) network, indicating that target data can be shared very quickly between systems and that communication between units has been enhanced. For all of this to be true, it would require the Azart and Akveduk families of radios to be operating optimally and capable of supporting the transfer of significant data packets between units. The current operations in Ukraine suggest that Russia does not have as many modern radios in service as it has claimed, and that it may not have adequately considered its communication needs for the range and scale of operations conducted.
A Matter of Distance
In addition, there is the question of Russian forces using their mobile phones to communicate. This is not unusual for modern warfare; accounts of Ukrainian soldiers doing the same are plentiful. However, one story documented by Nicholas Laidlaw cites a captured Russian soldier who states, ‘The officers started stationing themselves further and further away from the fighting … they are out of radio range at this point, and no one can contact them’. The soldier proceeds to explain that a lack of long-range communications equipment was preventing anyone from contacting the Central Command of the deployed forces. It follows that some Russian soldiers may have resorted to the use of mobile phones to communicate with officers and each other in order to gain some situational awareness.It seems bizarre that units advancing into Ukraine during this dangerous phase of the operation would not be outfitted with the best equipment, including radios, that Russia’s defence industry has to offer
One of the most striking images from Russia’s war in Ukraine so far has been the photograph of a civilian handheld radio. Although impossible to confirm, sources on social media said this radio had been captured by Ukrainian troops. Further inquiry hinted that the radio in question, a BaoFeng UV-82HP, had been purchased from suppliers in the People’s Republic of China. The radio uses V/UHF wavebands and lacks military-grade encryption. Why it was reportedly in the possession of Russian troops is unknown. However, this triggered immediate speculation on the health and performance of RuAF radio communications. One would assume that RuAF units in Ukraine would mostly be using the more advanced radios detailed above. It seems bizarre that units advancing into Ukraine during this dangerous phase of the operation would not be outfitted with the best equipment, including radios, that Russia’s defence industry has to offer. Are new military radios being delivered to units in fits and starts, forcing them to improvise? Or worse, are these new military radios considered substandard? That troops may feel more confident using a cheap Chinese handheld radio would say much about the quality of Russian equipment.
At the time of writing (4 March), Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is just one week old. Open-source information has raised questions about whether RuAF communications are fit for purpose. We must qualify this by saying that neither author is in Ukraine. Our analysis is produced from what we consider reliable open-source information and from our sources in theatre. Based on this information, we can paint a broad-brush picture of Russia’s military communications situation, and that situation does not look good.
The electromagnetic spectrum does not always capture the interest and imagination of students of war or the public. The electromagnetic spectrum, where radio waves reside, is an environment humans cannot appreciate with their own senses. It is invisible, silent, odourless, flavourless and formless. Yet it matters. Commanders and personnel are an army’s brain and its strike assets its limbs. Radio communications are its nervous system. Disrupt the nervous system and the brain and limbs communicate with great difficulty, or not at all.
Important clues are emerging regarding RuAF communications, hinting at potentially serious weaknesses. Radios like the BaoFeng UV-82HP will be relatively easy for electronic warfare (EW) practitioners to exploit. Firstly, their lack of discernible military-grade COMSEC/TRANSEC means the radios should be relatively susceptible to straightforward jamming. Secondly, this lack of COMSEC/TRANSEC could make it easy to feed false or misleading traffic into networks depending on these radios. This could pay tactical dividends for the Ukrainians, allowing them to sow disorganisation, doubt and demoralisation into Russian units. It is highly likely these radios are being used for squad communications at the tactical edge by dismounted infantry. Attacking networks at the tactical edge using these radios could help blunt or slow Russian manoeuvres.
Moreover, transmissions from these radios could be relatively easy to detect using rudimentary communications intelligence (COMINT) equipment. Once these transmissions are detected, COMINT systems could be used to follow the movement of the transmissions, and hence the movements of troops. Armed with this knowledge, Ukrainian forces could have a reasonable real-time picture of Russian dismounted troops moving within range of their COMINT equipment. This depends on those troops keeping their radios switched on and in regular use. Given the apparently lax communications discipline sources have said some Russian units have exhibited to date, this may well be the case. As noted above, open-source evidence also suggests that Russian troops are using mobile phones for tactical communications.
While Ukrainian forces may be numerically inferior on the battlefield, they have an opportunity to be superior in the electromagnetic spectrum
The employment of civilian communications by Russian manoeuvre units raises an interesting possibility. US sources expressed surprise after the invasion that Russian EW had not been more heavily employed. Once again, definitive answers as to why this is the case remain scant. It is reasonable to assume that inadequate numbers of EW systems and personnel were deployed into theatre. The equipment may be in a bad state of repair. These factors may combine in deterring commanders from employing electronic effects to their full potential. On paper, the RuAF can jam civilian V/UHF communications including two-way radios and mobile phone networks. The force’s RB-314V Leer-3 EW system deployed at the operational/tactical level can reportedly target mobile phone transmissions. V/UHF transmissions can also be targeted by the RP-377U/UA EW systems that the RuAF deploys at the tactical level (Grau and Bartles, The Russian Way of War: Force Structure, Tactics and Modernisation of the Russian Ground Forces, 2016, pp. 289–300). Have Russian EW cadres refrained from a heavier weight of electronic attack to avoid friendly fire against the civilian communications their troops rely on? This theory must be entertained.
The discernible lack of COMSEC/TRANSEC is mirrored in the HF domain. Unlike V/UHF, HF can perform beyond line-of-sight communications. This is because it uses the ionosphere to bounce radio transmissions over-the-horizon. The RuAF in general place a high premium on HF. It is a favourite mechanism for long-range trunk communications, having a similar importance to SATCOM in NATO forces. The RuAF do have access to domestic military-grade SATCOM. However, the preference for HF is said to be due to the fact that high frequency radio is difficult – although not impossible – to jam (Withington, ‘Thinking about the Unthinkable’, in Military Technology, Issue 1, 2022). Online sources reveal not only that Russian military HF radio transmissions are relatively easy to find, but that they are made en clair without encryption. This appears seemingly oblivious to the danger that these transmissions may be intercepted and exploited for intelligence. This raises three possibilities. The first is that Russian military HF users may simply not care if eavesdropping takes place. The second possibility is that HF may be used to deliberately transmit false information; however, anecdotal evidence from the Ukraine theatre hints that intercepted traffic has correlated with Russian tactical actions. The third possibility is that the RuAF cannot encrypt their HF traffic. Encryption devices may not have been supplied to the forces en masse. Equally, those that have been supplied may be of poor quality.
Either way, Russia military HF is out there in the spectrum. With the right HF COMINT/COMJAM equipment, it can be detected, intercepted and the source of transmissions determined. While HF jamming is difficult, it is not impossible. Much like V/UHF radio, Ukrainian EW cadres could exploit Russian HF nets and jam them to impede command and control, or use them as a conduit for false, misleading and demoralising traffic. Determining the location of HF transmission sources could also let Ukrainian forces determine the position of Russian units. As HF is used for significant quantities of tactical/operational command level and operational/strategic level traffic, detecting and locating an HF radio may help betray the position of an RuAF command post. Engaging such a target kinetically would clearly help dislocate RuAF command and control, as would attacking it electronically.
The seemingly parlous state of RuAF communications creates an opportunity for Ukrainian forces. Lax communications discipline and deficient COMSEC/TRANSEC can be exploited by Ukrainian EW cadres. While Ukrainian forces may be numerically inferior on the battlefield, they have an opportunity to be superior in the electromagnetic spectrum. By detecting and locating sources of RuAF radio transmissions, Ukrainian forces can find, fix and engage the enemy kinetically and/or electronically. At the same time, via the use of COMINT equipment, Ukrainian forces can exploit Russian networks for intelligence and for battlefield deception. That said, the enemy has a vote, and it is imperative that Ukrainian troops ensure cast-iron communications discipline. The goal should be to preserve Ukrainian use of the electromagnetic spectrum while denying it to their opponents as far as possible. With the possibility of the war moving into a prolonged insurgency should Russia complete its occupation, Ukraine should look at utilising volunteers with radio, telecommunications and broadcasting expertise and experience. These cadres can be rapidly trained in EW techniques and thrown into the electromagnetic battle. EW is unlikely to defeat the RuAF by itself. Nonetheless, it is a valuable centre of gravity that Ukrainian forces should continue to exploit as a means of attacking Russian battlefield cohesion.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.