The Critical Use of Radios In the Ukraine and Russian War

Throughout history, radio technologies haven’t just influenced how we consume news and entertainment. They’ve also played an essential role in the communication strategies of soldiers and military groups, particularly during wartime.

Looking back through the annals of radio history, we can see some of the very first radio devices were specifically designed for critical communications.

Radios were initially used to send transmissions between government and military groups. Signals on various frequencies coordinated the movement of troops, initiated orders, and relayed vital information.

Radio communication has also been influential in the military landscape as a method of gathering intelligence. By tuning into radio transmissions from the “other side” of the war, military groups could essentially track the movements of their enemies.

Although military technology has come a long way over the decades, the evidence suggests radio still plays an important role. Today, we will look at how radios influenced the progression of the most recent Ukraine and Russian war.

Ukraine, Russia, and Electronic Warfare

a closeup of a radio transceiver on an army uniformed soldier

Electronic warfare has become a core component of modern warfare, heavily influencing the outcome of large-scale conflicts.

While radio transmissions have long played a part in the military landscape, the use of these tools has increased significantly in recent years.

Battles can be won or lost based on a country’s ability to overcome the technological advantages of another.

Radiofrequency technologies, from radar to tactical radios and navigation systems, are pivotal to the movement and management of military forces.

As a result, radio-electronic warfare has now emerged as a critical part of degrading enemy combat systems, even in the Ukraine and Russian war.

For instance, Russian forces in Ukraine have grounded unmanned aerial systems in Ukraine by jamming and spoofing signals required for the SDRs in these tools.

This previously rendered the Ukrainians incapable of delivering surveillance and intelligence from the air. Russians also attempted to jam air defense radars, nullifying command and control efforts.

At the same time, Ukrainian troops have leveraged their electronic warfare strategies. For example, the country’s forces have utilized jamming systems supplied by the United States to prevent Russian tactical communications.

Since the Russians haven’t been able to leverage single-channel ground and airborne systems for radio communication, they’ve often relied on unencrypted radio systems and cell phones, making them more susceptible to Ukrainian exploitation.

Ukrainian forces have also been able to exploit the weaknesses of larger, more powerful electronic warfare systems used by the Russians.

Teams have intercepted and detected transmissions from well-known military tools like the Krasukha-4 and Leer-3.

The Unsecured Radios of the Russian Troops

The most surprising thing about the Ukrainian and Russian war is how underprepared the Russians have appeared to be from a technological standpoint.

Russia is considered one of the world’s most advanced countries, particularly regarding spying and military technology. Russian leader Vladimir Putin, a former intelligence officer, is particularly proud of this fact.

However, the communication strategies of the Russian troops in Ukraine still need to live up to expectations.

A man's hand in a plane holds a com during the Ukraine and Russian war
Electronic warfare has played a large role in the Ukraine Russia war.

Though Russia has overhauled and improved its military technology in recent decades, focusing on modernizing its communication hardware, they’ve struggled to implement new solutions into its efforts within Ukraine.

Specifically, many Russian military transmissions have occurred almost exclusively over unsecured lines.

Even amateur radio enthusiasts have been able to tune into Russian broadcasts online, using websites such as Web SDR. Some of these broadcasts have even been shared on social media and in press releases, revealing the frustrations of Russian troops.

Primarily, the Russians appear to have relied heavily on high-frequency radio signals and mobile phones to communicate, opening the door for Ukrainian forces to step in and listen to broadcasts.

Russian commanders have also exhibited major difficulties orchestrating communications over such a vast battlefield.

Troops are deployed across one of the largest countries in Europe, posing significant challenges for military planners who need to ensure radios are operating on the correct frequencies.

Since early on in the war, Ukrainian volunteers have been able to listen to much of the military radio traffic among Russian troops.

There’s even some anecdotal evidence that these unsecured communications have led to significant battlefield losses.

For instance, one Russian general was reportedly killed in an airstrike after the Ukrainians detected his cellphone signal.

In another example reported by the Ukrainian Defense Ministry, two intelligence officials from Russia were heard discussing how difficult it was for them to get in touch with each other on the battlefield.

How the Ukraine Troops have Intercepted the Russians

Up close of a man talking into a handheld radio
Ukraine has found many ways to get a leg up on the rudimentary ways the Russians communicate in this ongoing conflict.

While not all Russian communications in Ukraine are unencrypted, the evidence at the time of writing (March 2023) shows that Russian troops have been perhaps too casual in using radio and mobile technologies.

One striking image from the Russian war in Ukraine showcased a handheld radio operated by a Russian troop.

The radio was a simple BaoFeng UV-82HP form of V/UHF waveband radio without military-grade encryption.

By using handheld radios without encryption, the Russians essentially exposed themselves to any Ukrainian volunteer or radio enthusiast capable of finding whatever frequency they were broadcasting.

Transmissions from radios such as these can be relatively easy to detect using rudimentary communications intelligence equipment.

Even many amateur radio enthusiasts know how to search through frequencies to find communications.

Once transmissions are detected on a radio system, they can also be used to follow the movement of Russian troops.

To make matters worse, alongside simple radio systems, many Russians also relied on their own cell phones and smartphones brought into Ukraine.

When the Ukrainians found out about the Russians using their cell phones, they cut Russian phone numbers from their network, meaning troops could no longer continue using their phones.

Russian troops began seizing cell phones from Ukrainian civilians to address this issue. However, the Ukrainian government called in citizens to provide information about stolen cell phones to the military so that those products could be transformed into listening devices for troops.

As a result, the Ukrainians have been able to leverage a combination of radio frequency technology and mobile technology to achieve a valuable advantage in intelligence.

Ukraine’s Continued Investment in Radio

Although the Russians may have had an advantage from a technological perspective when entering the Ukraine war, they may not have used it correctly.

At the same time, Ukraine has continued investing in its ability to gather Russian intelligence. The country has received significant help from the United States and other NATO countries, particularly in developing jamming equipment and SDR radio technologies.

SDRs (software-defined radios) have been critical to electronic warfare in the past, as they receive and transmit data over a wide tuning range, using various channels, networking capabilities, and high bandwidth.

SDR solutions can be developed to accommodate the needs of different parts of the radio spectrum, making them ideal for surveillance and reconnaissance.

They can also be embedded into amplifier and antenna receiver systems and optimized for multiple input and output operations over a wide range.

A non-profit organization within the US began supplying Ukrainian forces with advanced SDR solutions developed using simple off-the-shelf components during the early stages of the war.

The American Ukrainian Aid Foundation has built these SDR kits to help Ukrainians achieve several outcomes, including being able to locate Chinese-made radios used by Russian forces.

The SDR receivers can locate radio emitters across a wide area, pinpointing air defense radars and electronic warfare systems previously used to jam GPS and other signals.

Access to abundant low-cost receivers has made Ukraine one of the first nations to deploy SDR technology on a large scale for electronic warfare requirements.

Are Ukrainian Radio Technologies Beating the Russians?

An old radio turned on and ready to go during the Ukraine and Russian war

Military analysts have advised against making sweeping generalizations about the state of the Russians’ communication strategy.

After all, while there is some evidence of the Russians using relatively outdated and unsecured equipment for communications, there’s evidence of more advanced tools being used too.

For instance, photos of Russian equipment captured by Ukrainian forces have highlighted the presence of secure and sophisticated radios among several troop members.

However, some military analysts also believe the Russians may have used off-the-shelf radios to try and blend in with the broad spectrum of civilian frequencies used throughout Ukraine, making them harder to find.

While the Ukrainian forces have consistently drawn attention to their ability to break into Russian radio transmissions since the war began, it’s worth noting that many critical military communications among Russian troops are still encrypted.

However, developers and innovators in the Ukrainian landscape are also working on breaking these encryptions using SDR technology.

At this time, the Ukrainian and Russian war is still ongoing, and it’s difficult to know how radio technologies will continue to evolve going forward.

It seems evident that the Russians weren’t as prepared as they should have been from a radio frequency perspective when entering the Ukraine landscape.

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