Kremlin-owned media outlet Sputnik News recently released details of a new electronic warfare aircraft being developed for the Russian military that they claim will not only be able to jam communications but also “disable enemy satellites.” Of course, the unnamed source from “within the Russian defense ministry” opted not to divulge any details of just how the new aircraft will engage with orbital assets, describing the systems being developed for the aircraft instead only as “fundamentally new.”
The work is currently underway to develop an aircraft equipped with jamming systems that will replace Il-22PP Porubshchik [electronic warfare aircraft], which are currently being delivered to the Russian Aerospace Forces. This machine will receive a fundamentally new on-board equipment, which will allow to conduct electronic suppression of any targets — ground, air, sea — and disable enemy satellites that provide navigation and radio communication on the ground,” the source said.
The first half of those claims are pretty believable. Electronic suppression or jamming isn’t unheard of technology and reports of Russian jamming equipment being used in Belarus and Kaliningrad during last year’s Zapad military exercises near the Baltics suggest that Russia has already been working to develop digital area denial techniques that could limit or disrupt communications. The United States military has already set about conducting exercises that presuppose the idea that issues with satellite communications are just a part of peer and near-peer level warfare in the 21st century. The latter half of those claims, however, beg some interesting questions about how this new aircraft will be equipped, and just what purposes it may aim to fill.
Disabling an enemy satellite could feasibly mean a number of things. China has already demonstrated their ability to target American satellites with ground-based lasers, causing no damage but sending a clear message about the potential for weapons applications. Russia’s new aircraft could hope to use similar laser technology to damage or temporarily distract satellites, which could offer varying degrees of strategic value depending on if the laser is actually able to damage the satellite, or if it is simply able to confuse it temporarily. It’s worth noting that merely dazzling some satellites in America’s orbital constellation could dramatically reduce the nation’s chances at identifying and intercepting inbound nuclear missiles. In other words, this new electronic warfare aircraft may pose a significant threat to America’s nuclear defense infrastructure as well as to conventional forces in the fight. It’s also possible to engage satellites with missiles, as China has demonstrated in the past — but electronic warfare aircraft of this sort are rarely armed, let alone equipped with missiles of that sort.
According to Russia’s claims, the new systems being developed (and coupled with what they say will likely be an entirely new airframe) will be able to disable anti-aircraft and missile defense systems as well as disrupting the functions of unmanned aerial vehicles — and that’s where the claims are starting to sound a bit more like science fiction.
While there’s no denying that weapons have been under development for years that aim to disrupt the function of the electronics employed by the enemy in combat zones, Russia’s suggestion that their new aircraft will single-handedly be able to power down drones, disable anti-aircraft systems, and take out satellites in orbit, all while blocking digital and radio communications sounds more like a flight of fancy than anything else. Each of these applications would require either a highly specialized form of data attack or a kinetic one — and it seems unlikely that a single aircraft could house such an array of capabilities (assuming Russia could even develop them).