On 4 April, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) documented a Protek R-330Zh ZHITEL mobile jamming system 60km west of the town of Luhansk in eastern Ukraine, where the organisation has been deployed since March 2014. Its task is to observe and report impartially on the evolving situation and to facilitate dialogue between the protagonists in the ongoing crisis. The deployment of the ZHITEL should come as no surprise: a 2017 report, ‘Russian Electronic Warfare Capabilities to 2025,’ written by Roger McDermott, Senior Fellow in Eurasian Military Studies at the Jamestown Foundation, a think tank based in Washington, DC, highlighted the importance that Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) electronic attack plays in Russian Army doctrine. Pertinent capable platforms are deployed at company level within the manoeuvre brigades. As the report makes clear, GNSS jamming has been a staple feature of Russia’s involvement in the Ukrainian civil war since its annexation of Crimea in 2014.
A new report - ‘Above Us Only Stars’ - published in early April by C4ADS, another Washington, DC-based think tank, shows this trend is continuing and makes for sobering reading. It chronicles electronic attacks conducted by Russia against GNSS infrastructure over the past three years. In the maritime domain, the report identifies 9,883 examples of GNSS electronic attack, in the form of spoofing, affecting 1,311 commercial vessels, stating that the attacks originated from Russia and Russian-controlled parts of Ukraine and Syria. Examining the years 2016-2018, it observes that, initially, only a dozen or so vessels were affected by GNSS jamming in the Black Sea, although instances of jamming increased sharply over the following year, which may have been due to an increase in GNSS jamming systems in the region. The document adds that, once the reports of these GNSS attacks had garnered interest in the mass media, incidences decreased in frequency from mid-2017.
By examining key GNSS spoofing events between February 2016 and November 2018, C4ADS’ analysis discovered that examples of GNSS jamming recorded in Archangel, northern Russia, Kerch in Crimea and Vladivostok in eastern Russia, coincided with visits of President Vladimir Putin. The report speculates that GNSS jamming is conducted in such instances to prevent unauthorised flights of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) in the vicinity of the President and his entourage and that they were almost certainly performed using mobile GNSS jamming devices. In terms of the systems being used to conduct jamming, the report states that the KOBRA SHIPOVNIK-4800M and SHIPOVNIK-M may have been used during these visits. Other systems used for similar tasks include the firm’s SHIPOVNIK-95/98 products, which are thought not to be designed to support military operations but are used instead to protect specific locations or motorcades during VIP visits.
In terms of military GNSS jamming for force protection, the joint team from C4ADS and the University of Texas, Austin, which examined jamming for the report, noted its widespread use in Syria. Using a GNSS receiver equipping the International Space Station to which the team had access, they noted that the source of the jamming signals in Syria was the Khmeimim airbase, where Russia maintains a sizeable military presence supporting its ongoing operations in-country.
The researchers noted that the jamming scheme used by Russia would allow targeted GNSS receivers to retain a connection with the constellation but to deny them timing or positional information, the lack of which effectively makes GNSS navigation impossible. The jamming signals transmitted from Khmeimim were recorded as being up to 500 times stronger in amplitude than normal GNSS signals, effectively blocking out the latter.
Open sources have recorded that Russia has deployed electronic attack systems capable of jamming and spoofing GNSS signals in Syria. As in Ukraine, these have included the R-330Zh, which reportedly covers a 1-2GHz waveband. The world’s GNSSs, typically the US Global Positioning System (GPS), Russia’s GLONASS, the Chinese BEIDOU and the European GALILEO constellations provide ‘precision, navigation and timing’ (PNT) transmissions across wavebands of 1.164-1.605GHz, placing them squarely within the frequency capability of the R-330Zh, which is in all likelihood the source of these GNSS jamming signals.
For Russia, the jamming of GNSS serves two purposes. First, it seeks to prevent UAS using GNSS for navigation over-flying the facility at Khmeimim, either for reconnaissance of for ‘suicide’ attacks. On 5 January 2018 the facility came under attack from 13 such aircraft equipped with explosives. The Russian Ministry of Defence stated that electronic warfare systems had been instrumental in forcing at least six of the aircraft to land, with the rest attacked and destroyed by KBP PANTSIR-S1 air defence systems. Second, the deployment of GNSS jamming equipment may be intended to jam or spoof GNSS-guided weaponry. US forces deployed in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, the US-led operation directed against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), have used GPS-guided Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) precision weapons to engage targets.
Nevertheless, jamming such weaponry may not be straightforward. The US military uses two specific GPS signals dubbed L1 (1.6GHz) and L2 (1.2GHz), both of which are encrypted. This means the munition will only respond to encrypted transmissions, blocking those which are not. Unless an adversary can determine the precise code being used at that moment on US military GPS channels, jamming will be difficult, if not impossible. Moreover, any GPS signals not within the very precise frequency band being used at that point by the munition will also be discounted. This is not to say that the US and its allies should become complacent regarding the GNSS jamming and spoofing threats. It does mean, however, that Russia will probably need to develop GNSS electronic attack systems with higher levels of sophistication, if they are to have a chance at disrupting the PNT signals on which these munitions depend.
Dr Thomas Withington