But the Kremlin has more to fear than you do
by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
The Russian military is expanding its cyber and electronic warfare forces. Specifically, the Ministry of Defense is creating a unit with wide-ranging jobs including blinding fighter pilots to hacking and planting malware.
It’s all part of the Combined-Arms Center for the Training and Use of Electronic Warfare Troops in Tambov, a university town between Moscow and Vologograd. The unit itself is pretty interesting, and derives from a Defense Ministry proposal to create so-called “information troops.”
Other personnel in the Russian military engage in elements of what they do, but this is only unit in the Russian military organized in this fashion … so far.
“The new structure is supposed to be based on programmers, mathematicians, cryptographers, electronic warfare officers, and communications experts,” the Moskovskij Komsomolets newspaper reported.
“In addition to repulsing attacks from the Internet, these troops are supposed to prevent cyber attacks on classified military networks — the missile defense system’s network, for example.”
If you thought — that’s a lot of different jobs lumped under one category, you’re not wrong.
In the United States, the military treats cyber warfare as a distinct form of conflict and separate from electronic warfare — which involves using directed energy to jam radars and communications, among other tactics.
It’s like the difference between using malware to take down a fighter jet’s sensors and simply overpowering it with a high-frequency signal jammer.
But in Russia, doctrinally-speaking, all of this falls under “information warfare.” Further, the Kremlin includes propaganda and other types of “influence” operations under the category, too.
We’ve seen a blend of this in Ukraine, with Russian activists using the Internet to spread propaganda online as electronic-warfare vehicles on the ground jam Ukrainian fighter jets in the air. The unit at Tambov appears to be the first of these new wide-ranging “information troops” under the direct control of the military.
“Although this development can simply be traced to the increased importance of information technologies in modern warfare, it can also be seen as another way the Russian MoD is now looking at threats other than traditional military ones,” noted OE Watch, a monthly publication by the U.S. Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office.
To illustrate this blurring of different roles, the Tambov unit’s office has electronic-warfare vehicles on site, according to Moskovskij Komsomolets. These vehicles have jammers to attack fighter jets by scrambling their navigation and targeting systems — requiring the pilots to fly visually.
The students practice in simulators tracking “a flight of fighter aircraft on computer screens and attempt to ‘blind’ them when ordered to do so by their instructor,” electronic warfare officer Col. Yuri Gubsky told the paper.
That’s in addition to defending against hack attacks.
To be sure, the media coverage in Russia emphasizes the cyber troops’ defensive nature, as opposed to the Pentagon’s openly-declared defensive and offensive strategy.
But in Russia, there’s at least some media spin at work — as offensive tactics are very much part of it. Because the Kremlin has been at work creating these units for years.
In 2011, security analyst analyst Keir Giles traced the information troops’ origins as deriving from Russia’s urge to create an all-encompassing cyber military force. Its theoretical founder, political scientist and ex-KGB colonel Igor Panarin saw the future force as engaging in “so-called hacker attacks on enemy territory.”
Lt. Gen. Aleksandr Burutin — a former adviser to Pres. Vladimir Putin — also proposed cyber troops capable of “analyzing the challenges and threats … to reacting and pre-empting them.”
To be fair, it’s still — for the most part — defensive in nature. But that’s because Russia is far more vulnerable in the cyber realm than threatening. And this extends throughout the Russian military. There are new tanks — but not enough of them. The same is true for fighters. The Kremlin can still build advanced warships, but most of them are rusting away.
And it’s true for Russia’s cyber force.
The Pentagon, for example, fears that hackers and malware could compromise advanced technologies — like a warship or a fifth-generation fighter jet. American generals are worried about malware infecting its supply chain through parts derived from foreign companies.
This is very different from pushing a button and shutting off the power grid, which cybersecurity experts have often pointed out as a ridiculous exaggeration. Russia’s actual “information warfare” operations — including cyber — to date have hardly amounted to anything close.
But cyber warfare is very real. Over the course of many years or even decades, sensitive networks and computers could become so compromised as to be useless in a major war. At least, that’s the worst-case scenario.
But the Russian military is far more dependent on foreign sources of technology — such as microelectronics for missiles and aircraft — as to be even more vulnerable. Hence why the Kremlin is putting more of an emphasis on its own cyber troops.
- Russia’s ‘Cyber War’ Has Gotten Totally Ridiculous
- Let’s Face It—It’s the Cyber Era and We’re Cyber Dumb