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Russia’s “Electronic Ears”: The Technologies of Modern Warfare


The information revolution that began with the explosion of computing technology in the 1970s, has transformed the face of warfare. Whereas in the past, wars were waged by sizable military forces which sought decision by closing with the enemy and destroying him, including through close interpersonal combat, but these days such actions are rare. The cost of modern weapons means that military forces are far smaller, and their lethality means that risking exposure to enemy fire is tantamount to suicide. Instead, the recent conflicts in Syria, Ukraine, and Yemen have been characterized by the warring sides attempting to destroy opposing forces or to compel them to withdraw through the application of firepower, rather than close action.

Since fire predominates over shock action, it is crucial that the power of increasingly accurate and long-ranged weapons be appropriately directed. This gave the rise to what Soviet-era military theorists were referring to as the “reconnaissance-strike complex”, or the fusion of sensors and weapons systems to enable accurate fire-in-depth against every echelon of the enemy battle order, from the front-line troops, all the way back to strategic command and control centers. This concept is referred to in the West as ISTAR, or Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, and Reconnaissance.

The Tu-214R electronic surveillance aircraft is a major component of the Russian “reconnaissance-strike complex”.

The Tu-214R, which is based on an airliner airframe, combines multi-spectral intelligence-gathering capabilities to ensure target acquisition using a variety of information-gathering systems. Arguably the most visible one is the MRK-411 sideways-looking synthetic-aperture radar which is optimal for detecting objects moving overland. Its large conformal radar panels lining the sides of the fuselage give the airplane its distinctive look. The MRK-411 also includes electronic communications intercept equipment, giving it the ability to map out and identify ground-based electronic emitters, be it radar, radio, or microwave. Less visible but no less important is the Fraktsiya optronic system used to locate and track land targets visually. Collectively, these systems give the aircraft the ability to construct a fairly comprehensive electronic picture of the battlefield, which may be supplemented by data supplied by reconnaissance satellites and drones.

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