Spy Planes, Signal Jammers, and Putin’s High-Tech War in Syria

Spy Planes, Signal Jammers, and Putin’s High-Tech War in Syria

Russia has been sending fighter jets, drones, and bombers to Syria to bolster the regime of Bashar al-Assad, generating concern and outrage among the United States and its allies. Far less attention has been paid to Moscow’s simultaneous deployment of advanced surveillance, signals intelligence, and electronic warfare equipment that could deal a new blow to the beleaguered, American-backed rebels working to oust him.

In recent weeks, Russia has deployed the IL-20 surveillance aircraft, better known by its NATO name “Coot” and roughly equivalent to the U.S. Navy’s P-3 Orion, a mainstay of the Pentagon’s spy tools. The Russian plane is bristling with high-tech equipment like surveillance radar, electronic eavesdropping gear, and optical and infrared sensors. One of the Kremlin’s premier spy planes, it provides Russian forces with a powerful tool for locating rebel units and assigning targets to its fighter planes. In late September, Syrian rebels posted a video purporting to show the plane flying over a battlefield.

The Russian buildup of intelligence assets and tools of electronic warfare also includes the deployment of the Krasukha-4, an advanced electronic warfare system used to jam radar and aircraft. Its presence in Syria was reported by Sputnik News, the Russian state outlet, which claimed to have spotted the distinctive jamming system in a video report on Russian jets at a Syrian airfield in Latakia. The system and its parabolas are visible at the 6-second mark in the video below.

The deployment of the IL-20, or Coot, is perhaps the clearest indication that Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to ensure his troops in Syria are not reliant on Assad’s forces for targeting information — and that they may be preparing for a ground combat role. On Monday, Moscow said “volunteer” troops would be heading to Syria to join in the fight there, a barely disguised sign that Russian forces could soon be directly battling U.S.-backed rebels inside Syria.

Russia’s transfer of advanced electronic warfare tools to Syria is the latest example of Moscow’s so-called “hybrid warfare” tactics, which use deception and covert operations to achieve strategic objectives with a minimal use of military force. Indeed, the Krasukha-4 was also spotted in Ukraine and played a key part in Russia’s campaign of electronic warfare there, which Kiev claimed resulted in a disruption of cell service at times. The deployment of the Krasukha, which can be used to disable aircraft avionics, came at around the same time that Western policymakers publicly entertained the idea of establishing a no-fly zone over eastern Ukraine. The positioning of the Krasukha, in addition to other air defenses, prevented the enforcement of such a no-fly zone and kept Putin in control of the skies, according to Igor Sutyagin, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a London think tank.

Now, too, the Krasukha has been put in place as several countries are calling for the establishment of a no-fly zone in northern Syria. Sutyagin described the deployment of the Krasukha as an effective “no-fly zone for those who want to create a no-fly zone.” For now, there is no evidence that the electronic warfare system has been used against American and other coalition planes flying in the skies over Syria, but its presence has surely been noted by the American military.

The use of cutting-edge signals intelligence and electronic warfare tools is indicative of Russian intentions in Syria. Jeffrey White, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a 34-year veteran of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, described the rebels as not “that hard a SIGINT target,” using a shorthand term for signals intelligence, or transmissions plucked off the airwaves. “Do [the Russians] need their best and most sophisticated collection techniques and methods?”

Russia’s use of the new tools — in particular the equipment designed to provide more precise targeting information — comes amid a fierce debate between Putin and the Obama administration over Russia’s true targets in its Syria air war. Russian leaders insist they are only hitting targets tied to the Islamic State, but rebel groups in the country — backed by senior U.S. officials like Defense Secretary Ash Carter — say Moscow is actually dropping almost all of its ordnance in areas held by groups fighting Assad.

If it changed course and decided to focus on the Islamists, Russia could more easily use the newly deployed equipment to mount precision strikes against Islamic State targets and jam the group’s communications. If Moscow sticks to its current path, by contrast, it will have powerful new tools to use against Syria’s moderate opposition.

Russia and Syria have a long history of intelligence cooperation in the fight against the country’s rebel groups, and Russia has previously supplied signals intelligence expertise to the Syrian government. In October 2014, rebels overran a Syrian military base near the Golan Heights, discovered a joint Russian-Syrian listening post, and posted a gleeful video tour of the highly secretive facility.

Asked about the intensified Russian intelligence buildup in Syria, one U.S. senior defense official remained closed-lipped about Moscow’s capabilities there other than to acknowledge the sophisticated tools at Russian troops’ disposal and that “their operational patterns remain the same” as in Ukraine. Speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss classified details, the official said that Russia has concealed communications and movements as it did in Ukraine, including by hiding Russian fighter jets within the signature of larger cargo jets.

Other assets deployed to Syria include the R-166-0.5 signals vehicle, which provides command and control functions for a battalion of Russian ground troops. Its presence in Syria is intriguing, Sutyagin said, because it implies the presence of a battalion-strength detachment of ground troops. On Monday, Interfax reported that the Vasily Tatishchev, an advanced naval surveillance ship, has sailed for the eastern Mediterranean.

Earlier this summer, military blogs reported that the Syrian army had received from Russia a new batch of R-330P communication jammers. The simple radio communications tools used by anti-Assad rebels are easy fodder for such a system and could be used to undermine coordination by rebel forces in mounting operations and offensives.

Between the Krasukha, the IL-20, and the Vasily Tatishchev — in addition to the reported presence of surveillance drones — Russia has poured its best assets into Syria against targets that really shouldn’t be particularly hard for the country’s air force to hit. But that deployment is still quite small, and its concentrated use has allowed Putin to achieve his goals with a minimal amount of effort.

With a handful of fighter jets, a few naval assets, a jammer, and a signals intelligence plane, Putin has managed to reshape the balance of power in Syria. It is what Sutyagin, who spent 11 years in jail in Russia on flimsy espionage charges that caused human rights groups to label him a political prisoner, called a huge achievement “with tiny efforts.”

Foreign Policy staff writer Dan De Luce contributed reporting to this article. 

Photo credit: MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP/Getty Images