NBC News, citing four sources inside the Pentagon, reports that the jamming began weeks ago. It started shortly after suspected chemical attacks by the Syrian regime in the rebel-held Ghouta region. Russian forces were reportedly concerned that the U.S. military would retaliate for the use of chemical weapons and jammed drones to prevent U.S. forces gathering information.
The U.S. Air Force commenced the first of three Red Flag war games on Friday; aimed at providing a realistic approximation of combat operations against a peer or near-peer level opponent for U.S. and allied aircraft. Throughout Red Flag’s 42 year history, 28 nations have participated in the training event, with many more attending as observers. This year’s Red Flag training exercise, however, promises to be the largest ever conducted, and in an effort to increase the challenges faced by the combat pilots participating, Nellis Air Force Base is signal jammer access to GPS satellites, just as an enemy nation might do to hinder attacks from the air during war-time.
It’s not clear exactly which drones are being impacted, though NBC News claims that it’s affecting smaller drones and not MQ-9 Reaper or larger drones. This implies that the jammers, while effective, have a short operating range and that larger drones can simply fly above them. Then again, as Maritime Executive points out, larger drones also have backup inertial navigation systems and are not completely reliant on GPS. The jamming may affect smaller tactical drones such as the RQ-7 Shadow or ScanEagle.
Russian use of cell phone jammer in situations short of all-out war would reduce their effectiveness during an actual war, as U.S. and Allied forces study the signals and figure out ways to overcome them and field improved, jam-resistant system. The U.S. Army is already looking to field weapons that don’t rely on GPS to achieve pinpoint accuracy. Providing military support to a regime that gases its own people could end up hurting Russia militarily, not to mention politically, in the long run.
So far, the attacks have only affected small surveillance drones, four officials told NBC News, not the U.S. Air Force’s armed Predator and Reaper models. They declined to discuss whether any of the small aircraft had gone down as a result of jamming. High-end drones like the Global Hawk, Predator and Reaper are equipped with inertial navigation systems, which do not depend upon external signals for positioning, in addition to their GPS receivers.