The Art of the Inevitable

Russia jamming U.S. drones over Syria

Students of military strategy should have predicted this would happen. During the second week of April, unnamed U.S. government sources told NBC News that Russian forces operating in Syria have initiated an electronic war targeting the hand and catapult-launched drones that U.S. special forces employ for tactical intelligence collection. According to these anonymous officials, the Russians have focused on GPS and “other data links” associated with American low-flying eyes in the sky.

Just to make this clear up front, the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper developed by General Atomics do not appear to have been subject to similar difficulties, which suggests that Moscow is not seeking to deny Washington’s insights at the operational or strategic levels of warfare. Instead, this is a campaign aimed at the short-range surveillance platforms – a logical decision given the nature of Syria’s battlefields. We are not monitoring columns of armor or immense logistics convoys. The special forces teams in Syria are engaged in running battles defined by a few city blocks or small-scale running fights on the outskirts of an urban area – perfect places to employ a RQ-20A Puma developed by AeroVironment, or the Boeing MQ-27A ScanEagle. The Puma has a range of 9 miles and a 2-hour endurance. A ScanEagle is more impressive, reportedly able to loiter overhead for 24 hours. But, again, these are assets assigned to tactical forces. They are “armed” with electro-optical imaging systems – not Hellfire missiles. Depriving the U.S. forces working in Syria of such assets limits situational awareness and tactical mission planning. It will not result in a collapse of opposition to Assad or failure in a campaign to defeat ISIS. 

At least not yet.

What the jamming and GPS spoofing does foretell, is yet another blow to America’s revolution in military affairs. The four elements abetting a revolution in military affairs (RMA) – operational innovation, organization adaptation, evolving military systems, and emerging technologies – only come to complete fruition when synthesized into a whole that is more powerful than the parts. 

This was a lesson Marshal Ogarkov, the great Soviet military thinker, sought to emphasize in his evaluations of U.S. military power in the early 1980s. For Ogarkov, the most impressive capability the U.S. demonstrated during Desert Storm was the tightly synchronized, highly integrated joint operations across the depth of the theater – striking at strategic and operational centers of gravity. 

A similar argument was offered by Karl Lautenschlager in 1983. As a staff defense analyst at Los Alamos National Laboratory, Lautenschlager examined the relationship between technology and naval warfare. His study of naval developments led to conclusions which apply to RMA writ large. 

According to Lautenschlager, it was not one technological breakthrough that made the difference on a battlefield. Rather, he argued, it was the “synthesis of different technologies and how that synthesis can produce fundamental change in mission capabilities.” Lautenschlager concluded with three observations that still resonate on the indications and warning side of defense. First, he noted, “change is usually evolutionary, but it can be dramatic.” Second, new technology has not revolutionized warfare – in many ways we are still confronted with troops in a field exchanging volleys. Finally, “important changes are seldom reflected in obvious physical features.”

Finally, I offer a comment on the potential long-term – or lack thereof – impact the current revolution in military affairs may have on the balance of power in Syria. In a 1999 study on the systemic effects of military innovation, Emily Goldman and Richard Andres note there is a possibility that “new and proven military methods, even if they are truly revolutionary, will have no lasting effect on the balance of international influence because diffusion [of the technology] occurs quickly among the states that are in range of each other’s war-making ability.” 

Goldman and Andres go on to state “the spread of innovations have been accelerating over time and there is little reason to believe the trend will be reversed. The result has been a steady decline in the amount of time that a state that first leverages the innovation can expect to maintain a monopoly on the methods.” They highlight the fact that,  under Genghis Khan, the Mongols held a military lead for 50 years, while the French artillery advantage lasted only 4 years, and the Swedish advance in drill techniques held for a short 24 months.

The bottom line is that Russians deployed to Syria may indeed be capable of jamming or spoofing U.S. tactical collection platforms, but Washington knew the drone RMA would come to an end. Just as Moscow understands its current electronic warfare campaign will also be truncated by innovation in a factory or on the battlefield. And likely more quickly than the Swedes were able to maintain a lead in drill techniques. 

Eric C. Anderson is a retired U.S. Air Force intelligence officer and former member of the American Intelligence Community. His latest work includes a trilogy on the rise of ISIS and an examination of cyberwar within the political confines of Russia and the United States.