What We’ve Learned About SDRs From Russia’s War On Ukraine

from John OnseaEditor


The war in Ukraine has put the spotlight on software-defined radio as both Ukraine and Russia have turned to the technology. What has been learned about SDR effectiveness and how is this knowledge being used?

The careful, strategic use of the electromagnetic spectrum to prevent others from doing the same, commonly referred to as electronic warfare (EW), is an ecosystem of many components, including these three: electronic attack, electronic defense, and electronic warfare support measures. Definedthese three components are:

  • Electronic attack: The use of electromagnetic or directed energy (DE) against personnel or equipment to impair or destroy combat capabilities.
  • Electronic protection: Efforts or equipment aimed at protecting people or materials from the effects of EW. These include unintended side effects of friendly EW as well as enemy actions taken to degrade or destroy one’s combat capabilities.
  • Electronic Warfare Support: Actions and resources committed to locate, identify and, if necessary, intercept or neutralize sources of electromagnetic energy that pose an immediate threat.

The applications of EW are diverse, ranging from target navigation and location with radar to disrupting enemy mechanical and electromagnetic systems with electronic bombs. EW can be used to deceive or confuse the enemy, such as jamming radars or transmitting misleading signals. It can also be used as a DW to disable infrastructure.

Software-defined radio (SDR), a software-based radio communication system, is also part of the EW ecosystem and plays a critical role in the military’s secure communications. SDRs enable the implementation of the three components of EW defined above and consist of the Radio Front End (RFE) and the Digital Backend. An RFE may consist of multiple independent receive and transmit radio circuits, each responsible for receiving and/or transmitting signals that can be tuned to a center frequency over a wide range.

SDRs are “built with open architectures that enable rapid adaptation to adversary capabilities and efficient deployment of emerging technologies,” says Avionics Internationaland they will help the US military “build a battlefield mobile network that is both modular, open, and immune to interference from enemy EW systems.”

SSR, Ukraine and Russia

“Although military technology has come a long way over the decades, evidence shows that radio still plays an important role.” says Radio Fidelity. Here we look at how radios are influencing the evolution of the war in Ukraine and Russia, starting with Russia’s ability to ground unmanned aerial systems in Ukraine by jamming and spoofing signals needed for SDR in these tools. This action rendered the Ukrainians unable to provide aerial surveillance and reconnaissance, and at the same time the Russians attempted to jam air defense radars, rendering command and control efforts useless.

“At the same time, Ukrainian troops have used their electronic warfare strategies,” Radio Fidelity reports. “For example, the country’s forces have used US-supplied jamming systems to prevent Russian tactical communications. Because the Russians were unable to use single-channel ground and air radio communication systems, they often relied on unencrypted radio systems and cell phones, making them more susceptible to Ukrainian exploitation.

The Ukrainian military has successfully exploited vulnerabilities in Russian electronic warfare systems, including intercepting transmissions from well-known tools such as the Krasukha-4 and Leer-3, despite their larger size and power.

Perhaps the biggest surprise, however, is how badly the Russians have done using technology like radio. “Although Russia has overhauled and improved its military technology in recent decades, focusing on modernizing its communications hardware, it has struggled to implement new solutions in its efforts in Ukraine,” Radio Fidelity wrote. “Specifically, many Russian military transmissions occur almost exclusively over unsecured lines.”

This allowed the Ukrainian military to intercept Russian communications, often aided by SDR radio sets supplied to them by the New York-based nonprofit American Ukrainian Relief Foundation. According to ForbesThe SDRs allow Ukraine to “locate Russian radio transmitters, from command centers to drone operators.”

“In a traditional radio station, the signal from the antenna is processed by special hardware – amplifiers, filters, modulators/demodulators and other components. This means that each radio receiver is designed for a specific type of radio signal, whether it is a 5G mobile phone, AM radio, digital TV or WiFi.

With SDR, the antenna is the only hardware required. All signal processing is done digitally using a computer. By adjusting the programming, the SDR can pick up signals for various waveforms such as cell phones, radio, Bluetooth, and more.

Application of learning at home

Maj. Gen. Jett B. Ray, director of the network cross-functional team within the Army Futures Command, said the war in Ukraine validates the U.S. military’s pursuit of secure communications capabilities, Avionics International reports. “What we’re seeing in Ukraine reinforces the need for secure communications and greater mobility and survivability,” Ray said. “There is also great innovation happening with our Soldiers supporting operations in Europe.”

SDRs, which feature reconfigurable open-architecture hardware and software capable of digitally processing data, will be key to successfully achieving the Army’s objective, as SDRs can tune to any frequency band and use multiple waveforms through plug and play software applications built to published Army standards.

Radio frequency devices are important in military technologies for communication, recognition, navigation and spatial awareness. SDRs are the primary RF transceiver in modern military applications, including radar, SATCOM, tactical radios, and EW/SIGINT devices. As such, the continued development and reliance on SDR will only grow in importance, and providers of this technology will need to work quickly to keep up with the military’s needs.

Comments are closed.