The United States and its allies are belatedly ramping up their weapons aid to Ukraine as invading Russian forces bog down against surprising resistance and winter mud. Russian air superiority could stop these arms and ammunition shipments any day now, but the US military could do more to help Ukrainian troops without unduly escalating the conflict.
Political leaders and analysts have been proposing operations like no-fly zones or strikes against Russian armored columns to help Ukrainian forces stop Russia’s advance. While rhetorically satisfying, these operations could provide President Vladimir Putin exactly the excuse he needs for Russia’s lackluster performance thus far and help him establish a narrative of America as the aggressor that would prop up support at home.
Instead, the US military should get involved in the conflict in ways that are reversible, deniable or peripheral. Electronic warfare was one of the US military’s asymmetric advantages in the Cold War and could slow or confuse Russian forces using reversible effects and without causing direct casualties.
US Army MQ-1 Gray Eagle UAVs and Air Force or Marine Corps MQ-9 Reapers could fly from Romania or Poland into Ukrainian airspace to disrupt Russian communications using jammers, such as the Marine Corps Intrepid Tiger electronic attack pods. These systems could also be employed against Russian naval forces on the Black Sea to degrade their ability to coordinate amphibious operations along the Ukrainian coast west of Crimea.
The most intense form of electronic attack is high-power microwave, which damages electronics such as navigation systems, radios and sensors. Russian columns approaching Ukrainian cities could be attacked by high-power microwave, leaving vehicles stranded and vulnerable to Ukrainian ambushes.
The United States should send UAVs like the MQ-9 Reaper or expendable target drones such as the RQ-58 Valkyrie into Ukrainian airspace carrying high-power microwave payloads like that on the Air Force CHAMP missile to attack Russian electronic systems. Because microwave attacks do not leave visible damage, they could be denied — but Russian military leaders would understand what happened.
Like electronic warfare, cyber operations such as denial-of-service attacks can create temporary disruptions. Like high-power microwave, cyber can also create permanent damage. The United States and Russia have refrained from cyberattacks on civilian targets, but they could be employed more aggressively against Russian military forces.
Russian logistics are already not keeping up with its maneuver units, slowing the Russian advance. The United States should further degrade Russian troops’ support by disrupting the computer networks used to manage supply inventories and movements from depots. These networks are unlikely to be as well-protected as Russian operational networks, and hitting them would not be as escalatory as attacking Russian command and control directly.
Peripheral operations could help Ukrainian forces by constraining Russian options and dissuading expansion of the fight. Before the invasion, US Navy ships exited the Black Sea, and now Russian warships have established maritime superiority along the coast of Ukraine. However, NATO allies Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria also border the Black Sea; the US should step up its posture there as it did in Poland and the Baltics to the north.
Turkey cut off access to the Black Sea this week, but when access is restored the US Navy should return to protect NATO allies and freedom of navigation in the Black Sea’s international waters. In the meantime, US Navy ships should back up Turkey in preventing Russian ships’ passage into the Black Sea and support the navies of NATO allies using US P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft and MQ-4C Triton UAVs operating from Romania or Bulgaria.
The United States has an opportunity to help Ukrainian freedom fighters build on their early success and, let’s hope, end the Russian invasion. More important, if the US military does not show resolve and persistently engage the Russian military at low levels of escalation like these, it may lose credibility as a defender of other US allies or partners. Taiwan and Japan, for example, already face gray-zone aggression from China, which could escalate if Beijing is encouraged by Russia’s experience in Ukraine.
US Cyber Command is finding success in its confrontations with bad actors on the Internet using the persistent-engagement approach. The United States should apply it more broadly to discourage adversaries such as Russia and China.
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