Electronic warfare evolving rapidly in the hands of irregular forces

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Electronic warfare is advancing rapidly and is increasingly being used by irregular forces, defence expert Helmoed Romer Heitman has cautioned, and urged governments and militaries to stay on top of this rapidly evolving sector.

Heitman was speaking at the recent Electronic Warfare South Africa conference held at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) this month. He noted that irregular forces are all using modern communications devise from cell phones to satellite phones to handheld radios. These devices are used to issue instructions, for tactical and operational coordination and to arrange logistic support.

The terrorists who held a hospital in Budyonnovsk for six days in June 1995 and those who carried out the attack in Mumbai in 2008 were supported by external spotters who used cellular telephones to tell them what the security forces were doing. Those in Mumbai were reportedly also supported by a group in Pakistan who monitored the TV news and kept them informed, Heitman noted.

Communications works both ways, and is an opportunity for security forces. For instance, it can be used to monitor a concentration of forces, track individuals or pinpoint people, as happened to Carlos the Jackal and Jonas Savimbi. It can be used for target the opponent, such as when Chechen leader General Dudayev was killed after the Russians dropped a radar-guided bomb on his satellite phone. In Afghanistan, guerrillas were able to intercept unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) downlinks and see what the UAVs were seeing.

Other opportunities for security forces are to disrupt or jam communications (such as Israel did to Hamas during Operation Cast Lead in 2008/9 by disrupting their cell phone system); inserting disinformation and inserting propaganda.

Heitman explained the increase in remote control and automation is driving irregular threats. For example, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are increasingly being activated remotely through radios, cell phones, burglar alarm remotes and garage door openers. Although these can be jammed, Heitman notes that people are getting clever when it comes to electronics and it may be possible to programme the IED to detonate upon receiving a jamming signal, or when detecting the magnetic signature of a vehicle or when a vehicle passes through an infrared beam.

A big mistake most security forces make is they assume that irregular forces do not have sophisticated weapons, Heitman said. However, most irregular forces have a government backer that can supply sophisticated weapons. For example, irregular forces in Syria made good use of anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles against government forces; terrorists in Iraq used a man-portable air defence system to hit a DHL cargo aircraft and ships have been attacked using anti-tank missiles, like the Egyptian patrol boat off Sinai in 2015 and (with anti-ship missiles) the INS Hanit off Lebanon in 2006.

A fair amount of sophistication has gone into remotely-operated boat bombs, such as with the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka and in the Gulf of Aden. For instance, Houthi rebels have used remotely-operated boats to strike a Saudi Navy frigate off Yemen (in 2017) and other targets. Heitman said that although one or two boats may be defeated, “I don’t think there’s a single warship able to deal with a swarm attack – there are not enough channels of communication o deal with multiple targets.”

Automation has also seen Islamic State developing remotely-controlled car bombs and mobile bombs, experimenting with full-size cars and toy cars in Iraq. Islamic State achieved notable success through the arming of commercial UAVs with 40 mm grenades to target conventional forces in Iraq. It also used UAVs to monitor attacks by other UAVs, for propaganda and reconnaissance.

Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza also use a wide range of UAVs and Heitman reckons it is only a matter of time before such organisations fit anti-tank guided missiles onto UAVs – Hamas has already fitted unguided rockets onto UAVs. Large UAVs can be shot down, but the best way of taking out smaller UAVs is by jamming, Heitman said.

The distant guerrilla

Heitman examined the internet and social media as a point of vulnerability. “The internet and social media have vastly expanded the distance over which and the space within which the guerrilla or terrorist can act to spread propaganda; carry out psychological operations, including the intimidation of the families of security force personnel; sensitise targeted groups; gain recruits; provide training, even in the assembly and use of IEDs; activate members; allocate target types or specific targets; initiative attacks or operations; and exercise command and control.” None of this, he pointed out, requires large or complex installations.

However, the internet and social media are also a point of vulnerability, as their use can be back-tracked, giving security forces the ability to inject their own messages or disruptive viruses and when operating from a remote area, require the use of satellite telephones or radio, which creates vulnerability to interception, localisation, tracking and physical attack.

For example, Colombian security forces were able to localise FARC elements when they used satellite phones to connect to the internet; and some Islamic State members put out a photo on social media that allowed the US to locate and bomb them.

Cyber threats

“The internet and the ever-widening trend for everything and everyone to be connected result in potential vulnerability to cyber operations by both governments and irregular forces,” Heitman cautioned. Some examples he cited included the intense internet espionage carried out by several countries; the denial of service attacks on institutions in Estonia in 2007, which may have been carried out for the Russian government by criminal groups; the denial of service attacks that coincided with the invasion and excision of parts of Georgia in 2008; the cyber attacks on power plants and portions of the grid in Ukraine since 2017; the US cyber attack carried out against some facilities in Iran after that country shot down a Global Hawk UAV over the Persian Gulf; and recent cases of GPS jamming and spoofing.

Heitman cautioned that the more interoperable we become the more vulnerable we become and asked if it is necessary to always have computers connected to the internet when designing new technology, which leaves them vulnerable to cyber espionage.

Cyber warfare raises the question, Heitman said, of who should be responsible for cyber domain intelligence, counter-intelligence, protection, defence, counter-attack and pre-emption – the armed forces, the intelligence services or a specialised agency?

One way of combating some of these threats is to use tactical electromagnetic pulse weapons, which are now available as bombs and hand grenades. However, forces don’t want to fry their own systems, and electronics can be shielded by simple Faraday cages.



Most future conflicts will be against irregular forces, Heitman believes. “They are getting very sophisticated and don’t need much tech.” He urged for security forces to wake up before it’s too late and added that the sophisticated attacks see in northern Africa, such as Somalia, will be seen in the Democratic Republic of Congo and neighbouring Mozambique. “That will come down here and we will be stuck dealing with it.”