Russia’s Tobol electronic warfare (EW) system targeted the Global Positioning System (GPS) signal to break the “synchronization” of the Starlink satellite internet service with its ground terminals, according to a Ukrainian journalist.
Leaked documents from the Pentagon had recently named the mysterious system — that seemed to have been forgotten since 2020 after it was first identified — to have jammed SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet constellation.
Designated the 14Ts227, the leaked Pentagon intelligence papers say Russia had been experimenting with the platform for several months.
This primarily supports previous analyses and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s claims about persistent Russian efforts to jam the satellites. Musk had also made statements supporting Russia’s position in the war, particularly on Crimea, advocating a peace plan with Moscow.
He also threatened to suspend Starlink services in Ukraine over mounting dues that his company could no longer sustain, suggesting the Pentagon should foot the bill. By February this year, he finally took measures that “limited” Ukraine’s ability to use Starlink for military purposes.
Used By Ukraine, Blocked By Russia
Ukraine extensively used the spacecraft’s internet in its drones to conduct attacks inside Russia and Crimea. Starlink had also proven vital to Ukrainian military coordination, which relied on the small portable terminals to communicate across the battlefield and relay intelligence.
But the latest leak from the Pentagon papers suggests Russian EW had been fairly successful in blocking/jamming Starlink’s signals to its receivers and terminals used by Ukraine. However, it was unclear precisely in what manner the ‘interference’ or ‘jamming’ happened or what tactics the Russians employed.
How Tobol Jammed Starlink?
Zen, a Russian publication, quoted Ukrainian journalist Konstantin Ryzhenko as saying that the Russian jamming did not impact the transmission of data between the Starlink satellites or the ground terminals in any way.
“(Rather, it targeted) the GPS module responsible for the synchronized operation of the terminal and spacecraft. The suppression is carried out on the terminals and not the satellites,” the report said.
“While Starlink appears to be immune to EW at satellite frequencies, it has GPS in its structure, which is unfortunately vulnerable to electronic interference. If the GPS signal is jammed, Starlink cannot register, and even after successful registration, its speed is reduced until the connection is completely lost,” Ryzhenko explained.
This has confirmed earlier analyses by researcher Bart Hendrickx, who concluded in a November 2020 report that the Tobol works through ‘downlink jamming,’ where it targets the signals from the satellite to the ground terminals or receiving stations.
The other form is ‘uplink jamming.’ Here, the interference signal is blended with the original broadcast, “which distorts the information all users of that satellite receive,” according to a report in the Washington Post.
The Post referred to Hendrickx’s research in the context of the reports about Tobol. Naturally, downlink jamming has a smaller area of effect.
The Post report, too, could not pinpoint the exact manner in which the Tobol operates, saying, “There are only faint hints and disclosures publicly available about the Tobol program.” “Its capabilities have been a mystery for years,” it said. The Secure World Foundation (SWF) has identified at least seven Tobol complexes in Russia, all located next to facilities that track satellites.
Defensive System Turned Offensive
But interestingly, the SWF report – which relies on public documentation and academic papers filed within Russia – says that the Tobol was introduced to defend Russian satellites from jamming. With the underlying technical principles being the same, it now appears to have been merely repurposed for offensive jamming of other satellites.
For instance, Hendrickx’s research in The Space Review quotes a 2013 dissertation filed by Vladimir M Vatutin, identified as Tobol’s chief designer, specifying its technical capabilities. The “14Ts227 (can) monitor signals of navigation satellites to protect them against ‘narrowband interference.’
More specifically, it is capable of determining ‘the modulation of navigation signals with 90% accuracy at a signal-to-noise ratio of 30 decibels.'”
It can also pick up and jam “unauthorized” signals sent to satellites and relayed via satellites to the ground. It is these dual-use defensive-cum-offensive capabilities that US analysts are now presumably monitoring.
The Post, however, identifies Bakhmut in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region as the “estimated center” of where the interference/jamming signals were directed. Quoted in the context of the fight for Bakhmut for another Washington Post story, Ukrainian commander Colonel Pavlo Palisa in the besieged city too noted an effective Russian EW.
“Our enemy is using jamming really successfully,” he said, referring to measures blocking GPS signal access.
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