The fact that the SANDF’s sniper activities in the Democratic Republic of Congo were leaked to the media is compromising troops there, according to defence expert Helmoed Romer Heitman, and is another indication of the importance of controlling communications – both enemy and friendly.
Heitman was speaking at the Aardvark Roost’s Electronic Warfare conference held at the CSIR International Convention Centre yesterday. His comments come after last week’s revelation that South African National Defence Force (SANDF) soldiers had sniped six M23 rebels, including one apparently killed at a range of 2 125 metres – one of the longest successful sniper kills in history.
A soldier in the DRC said South African soldiers were using sniper rifles to target M23 command and control positions. The weapon of choice for these activities is believed to be the Denel NTW 14.5 anti-materiel rifle.
“Why the hell was it allowed to get out?” Heitman asked of news of the sniper shot, as well as the fact that special operations forces are operating behind M23 lines. “It got out because everybody and his dog has a cellphone and is talking,” he said, adding that such people have no idea of the possible harm they are doing by compromising SANDF soldiers.
Heitman pointed out that one cannot stop soldiers taking cellphones and cameras into battle and that repressing technology will not solve the problem. Rather, the military needs to train ordinary soldiers to be restrained in the media they capture and share.
“I think we can all be proud of that sniper and his colleagues. But I do not think this is something that should have been made public during the operation – let the other guy wonder what is going on. Now they know and they know what to look out for, and that is not good,” Heitman said. “Particularly as M23 are no clowns and are backed by the Rwandans who are exceedingly professional.”
During his presentation at the conference on Wednesday, Heitman cautioned that the M23 are “very professional” as they have been fighting for twenty years. They have a “wonderful local intelligence system” in the DRC as they know the local inhabitants – either inter-marrying with them or terrorising them – and have plenty of communications technology, from radios to cellphones. They also engage in propaganda, and are active on their Twitter account, from which they have directed threats at South Africa and South African troops engaging them as part of the UN’s Force Intervention Brigade (FIB).
Heitman said that in South Africa, both the previous and current governments do not understand the importance of propaganda and the need to get its message out first. He also warned that the SANDF is suffering from a ‘can do’ attitude which is out of synch with its lack of funding. Another flaw the South African military is suffering from is military arrogance, Heitman said, with sometimes problematic results. “Every op we’ve conducted over last 50 years has been a logistics disaster, from the Bush War to Bangui.”
In his presentation, Towards the Electronic Guerrilla, Heitman showed the audience the importance of communications in guerrilla operations as well as how this can be turned against them. Guerrillas (as well as smugglers, pirates, terrorists and criminals) use communications devices for tactical, operational and strategic communications, logistics (including moving funds), detonating bombs, propaganda etc.
As an example, Heitman noted that the 2008 raid on Chad’s capital Ndjamena involved some 500 vehicles traveling between 600 and 1 000 km. They formed up outside the city in a single day, requiring impressive logistics and communication.
While effective communications are essential to any military operation, they can also compromise military forces through interception, jamming, corruption and other electronic warfare methods. In tracking down guerrillas, terrorists and other such targets, communications interception is essential.
Heitman pointed out that Jonas Savimbi was tracked down and ambushed by monitoring his satellite phone. Carlos The Jackal was tracked to a room in his apartment in Khartoum via his phone and Osama bin Laden was tracked down by the phone calls his subordinates made. Chechen rebel leader Dzhokhar Dudayev was tracked down and killed by Russian forces who were able to lock on to his satellite phone and then launch missiles at him.
As technology advances, the importance of cyber conflict and electronic warfare increases – China’s continuous hacks of US defence organisations and companies and the Stuxnet virus are just some examples of this. Militaries around the world, from Estonia to the United States, are forming cyber warfare brigades as a result.
These and other topics are being discussed at the two-day Electronic Warfare conference, which ends today. Topics include border protection, battlefield management, communications jamming, technology advances, electronic warfare in times of austerity, South African electronic warfare research and more. This year’s theme is “Management of the Electromagnetic Spectrum (EMS) in the modern scenario of irregular warfare conducted in current operational environments.”