From the Crows' Nest

With recent arms transfers and sales to Ukraine, Ken Miller talks with retired US Air Force Colonel Jeff Fischer about how close Ukraine is to achieving EMS superiority.

Show Notes

With recent arms transfers and sales to Ukraine, how close is Ukraine to reaching EMS superiority in the war with Russia? Host Ken Miller talks with Jeff Fischer, retired US Air Force Colonel, about how Ukraine can achieve EMS superiority and how the allies are playing a role in it. They also dive into the implications for nations supporting Ukraine and explore what methods Russia might use to force Ukraine’s allies to stop their support as winter approaches, the significance of Russia’s recent troop movement, and the challenges the US faces in supporting Ukraine that lie far beyond Congress’ decisions. 

Jeff Fischer is a retired US Air Force Colonel, longtime aviator, and EW officer. He is also a military fiction author and is working on the release of his 4th novel. You can find his books here.

To learn more about today’s topics or to stay updated on EMSO and EW developments, visit our website

Creators & Guests

Ken Miller
AOC Director of Advocacy & Outreach, Host of @AOCrows From the Crows' Nest Podcast
Laura Krebs
Reese Clutter

What is From the Crows' Nest?

This podcast features interviews, analysis, and discussions covering leading issues of the day related to electromagnetic spectrum operations (EMSO). Topics include current events and news worldwide, US Congress and the annual defense budget, and military news from the US and allied countries. We also bring you closer to Association of Old Crow events and provide a forum to dive deeper into policy issues impacting our community.

Ken Miller (00:10):
Welcome to From the Crows Nest, the podcast on electromagnetic spectrum operations or EMSO. I'm your host, Ken Miller, Director of Advocacy and Outreach for the Association of Old Crows. Thanks for listening. In this episode of From the Crows Nest, I welcome back our guest and good friend, retired US Air Force Colonel, Jeff Fisher. He is a longtime aviator, an EW officer served with EC-130 Compass Calls as well as EA-6B Prowlers. During his time in the military, he also was a diplomatic defense official to US embassies in Austria and Kosovo and at NATO special operations headquarters. Today he is retired, but he is a military fiction author working on his fourth book and I highly encourage our listeners to pick them up. With that, I'd like to welcome my guest. Colonel Fisher, it's great to have you on From the Crows Nest. Thanks for joining me.
Jeff Fisher (00:58):
Hey, it's a pleasure to be here. Thanks a lot for having me.
Ken Miller (01:01):
Well, I wanted to have you back on the show. We had you on a few months ago talking about Ukraine and Russia and what was going on. That was about four months ago, five months ago. Now, we're at about the seven month point in time. So, I thought it'd be good to have you back on just talk a little bit more about what we're seeing over there. A lot of activity going on with recent arms transfers and sales of US weapons over to Ukraine. That has implications and of course, a lot of that touches on our area of specialty, which is electromagnetic warfare and EMS superiority. So, I wanted to bring your thoughts in on that. As our listeners know, you have a long career as an EW officer. And you are over near that area, so you're watching it very closely, what's going on. And so, I thank you for being on the show again today.
So just to get started, recent reports have suggested that Russia seems to be relocating some troops from southeastern portion maybe to the south to reinforce some of its offensives down there. Ukraine might be doing some counter offensives or trying to exploit that reallocation of troops in the southeast region. What can you tell us about what you're seeing recently about some of that troop movement and what does it mean for the overall trends of the conflict over there?
Jeff Fisher (02:25):
Yeah. So Ken, these are great questions. I'm currently writing my fourth book and I've been doing a lot of research. The fourth book that I'm on right now is called The Russian Puppeteer, and it actually is a fiction novel based loosely on the actual war in Ukraine. So, your questions couldn't be more timely. Kharkiv is where the big fighting is. That's what is in all the news over here in Europe right now. And what I find fascinating is in that, the research that I've done for my book, we all in the United States have talked about the electromagnetic spectrum and the electronic warfare in Ukraine as being significant and there is a lot of stuff, but what I'm starting to learn is that without, and I'll use the term electromagnetic spectrum superiority as well as air superiority, the battle space in Ukraine is very, very different than what the United States has experienced going back through Iraq and Afghanistan and it's starting to display itself in other ways and in other battle space domains or battle spaces, if you will.
An example of this is what you do not see in Ukraine is you do not see heavy lift like C-17s and C-130s resupplying forward lines and the reason is because without the ability to do electronic warfare and take out S-300s and S-400s and have air superiority in conjunction with that EW, you have a contested airspace and you're not able to bring them in. I had a fascinating discussion with an army colonel who just took over command of an interesting medical unit. He's now the commander of the United States Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine. And we had a great talk last night because we were talking about Ukraine and he said what the medical field is realizing is without the ability to get rotary wing in to pick up wounded service members, that golden hour is extending.
And Ukraine is not enjoying the survival rates that the United States did in Afghanistan or in Iraq. And this all goes back to electronic warfare, right? If you have good electronic warfare and a good electronic air superiority, you have the ability to get in and get rotary wing and utilize your other domains, air, land, and sea. We were able to do that in Kosovo, which is a perfect example, right? Prowlers and Compass Call and other assets were able to dominate the electromagnetic spectrum and take out the SA-6s, to take out the other surface area missile systems. In Iraq, we were able to take out the SA-2s SA-3s, SA-6s. Ukraine presented different challenges. It wasn't air defense, it was counter RCID, but we were eventually able to do that. I read in the news actually just before we talked, came out today that the Ukrainians on their counter offensive have actually captured a couple pieces of Russian EW gear.
I had not heard of them before. They were called RP-377 UVMILs and I went to look it up and it's basically Russia's equivalent or similar things to our counter RCID systems that would travel around on vehicles or in convoys to actually stop detonations of IDs. The pictures that were posted were not full systems, it almost looked like just the amplifier boxes and stuff like that. I don't know if they have the full system, but I found that also intriguing that Russians would leave these types of assets behind as they were being overrun. So, I think that gets a little bit to the meat of your first question. I don't know where else you want me to go with that.
Ken Miller (05:57):
So, I want to talk a little bit about what you just talked about, some of the equipment that's left behind or that's being captured during the counter offensive, but you mentioned that Kharkiv region is really heating up. Looking at it from a geopolitical standpoint, what is Russia trying to accomplish? I mean, I'm looking at a map here, a recent map of controlled territories and so forth and it's clear that they have quite a strong presence obviously in the south and southeast where it blocks Ukraine from the Black Sea. So, is there access to the Black Sea and the sea or other waterways in that region? Is that part of what's driving that position and what does that mean in terms of long term strategic victory for Russia or for Ukraine?
Jeff Fisher (06:42):
I think trying to get inside Vladimir Putin's head and to understand exactly what his strategy is, is a foolish man's game, but I'm willing to play because I've often been called a foolish man. We all know this, he started out from the north and tried to push into the capital and cut off the head and he didn't do very well at that. So then the south, he'd been for a long time in Crimea since 2014. And then when you look at the Oblasts down in the southeast, he'd been there as well for quite some time. The most recent offenses and looking at Kharkiv, I think that it's far easier for him to logistically support that push than the pushup from the north because he had to use Belarus as a staging point. And I think that that became politically tenuous and also logistically a challenge.
His Navy has definitely not performed as well as he had hoped. So, you're not seeing those pushes into Odesa and things like that. So, I think what he's tried to do is simplify his battle space, right? Shorten those lines of logistics. The southeastern front of Ukraine, the western front of Russia is the front that is easiest for him to resource.
I would tell you though, if you wanted to talk geopolitics a little bit, Europeans are starting to become very, very concerned about the winter and what the cost of oil and the availability of oil and energy is going to be. And Vladimir Putin's long been known to want to always play a long game. Ever since the wall fell in the 1990, he's been into Transnistria in Moldova. He went to Nagorno-Karabakh between Azerbaijani and Armenia. He's got forces that have gone into Georgia, right? In south of Ossetia and Abkhazia. They just sit there and he's just willing to wait things out. The same thing can be said for Kosovo and Serbia, right? He's promised Serbia for years to include President Vučić that eventually Serbia will again own Kosovo. It's just a matter of time after the 23rd year now that NATO's been there, NATO's getting tired and NATO will leave and as soon as they leave, the plan is to go in and take it. So, I think he's willing to play a long game and force other nations to stop their support of Ukraine.
Ken Miller (08:54):
You speak of the long game obviously with our removal of presence from Afghanistan last year and we're not necessarily from a political standpoint ready to maybe take on another long game and you're looking at some of the way that US has supported Ukrainians against Russia and particularly with, I think, we're up to about 12 billion now in weapons purchases or weapon transfers. How long do you see this going on and at what level of support can US sustain in its help with Ukraine? I mean, $12 billion obviously sounds like a lot. I think in the grand scheme it's not that much. There's room to grow in that, but certainly there's going to be a saturation point where it's like enough, we're not seeing the progress. So, where do you see the recent arm sales purchases, where do you see these going and are they having an effect or a positive effect on the conflict over there?
Jeff Fisher (09:54):
When you hear about the effects of the ground to ground based missile systems, the Ukrainians like them. Logistics isn't about a start point and an endpoint. It's about a process. I think the biggest problem that we have is not how much we're giving, but the size of the pipe to push the equipment through. We do pretty well at getting equipment across the ocean. We can get it into Ramstein pretty easily or other locations where we have large depos and large systems. But from there, you're starting to see a little bit of a bottleneck and I think it's only going to get worse. I think the bottleneck's going to be a problem. We can even get the stuff into Warsaw, but the nearest airfield that's actually viable to use to get stuff into Ukraine is an airport called Resevov, which is down near the border and from Resevov, and I hope I'm saying that correctly. I'll pronounce it because I'm not the best. It's R-Z-E-S-Z-O-W, Rzeszow? Okay?
Forgive me for my Polish, but that location to get all the way to the eastern part of Ukraine is a 10 hour drive, right? On roads that were not intended... It's not a four lane highway all the way across to Ukraine. So, there's your bottleneck and along that 10 hour problem, you're complicated by numerous checkpoints as well because you're in a battle space where Ukrainians and Russians look very similar. They have very, very similar languages. They both know how to speak each other's language. So at any given time, anyone traveling down the road can be a good guy or a bad guy. So, you have a lot of checkpoints slowing down the logistics process even further. So, I wish the United States would give more, but I wouldn't necessarily say that the problem lies in Congress or the politicians for not pushing enough forward. There are other challenges in the logistics trail that need to be addressed.
Ken Miller (11:48):
When looking at some of the recent purchases or transfers, you're seeing an uptick. I know that in August there was some more UAVs, there was some HARM missiles included in a package. And then more recently, there's some very highly accurate GPS guided shells or artillery systems that are sent over. It seems to be almost a bit of a ramp up in some of the precision guided munitions and some of the EW, electromagnetic spectrum, EMSO, types of capabilities, what are you seeing in terms of the trends and what we're standing over now versus earlier in the conflict?
Jeff Fisher (12:26):
Yeah. So, the HARM missile is fascinating, right? As a guy who shot, practiced and was trained on HARM and shot HARM in combat, my HARM was integrated into the ALQ-99 system on a EA-6B making it probably the most lethal and most capable harm, not from a missile perspective, but feeding information and identifying targets and controlled by guys who understand electronic warfare. Slapping an AGM-80, now congratulations to the engineers, this is awesome, right? But basically slapping an AGM-88 onto a MiG type aircraft, I can't imagine that you're going to be able to use too many sensors from that MiG and you're most likely going to have to rely on the emitter libraries that exist inside the HARM missile zone core library of emitters. It's not necessarily bad, it's not the most effective use of a HARM, I can promise you that.
But there are times, even in tactics in the United States where we would preemptively shoot a HARM and the intent was to actually force that SAM operator on the other end to make a decision. The missile's inbound. Do you wish to leave your radar on and take a chance or do you wish to turn it off?
They'll need a lot of HARM missiles if they want to gain some air supremacy or air superiority, but I like it from a fact of, I honestly believe that Russian surface air missile system operators have operated within impunity up until now. Forcing them to make some decisions and turn off at certain times is a good thing and it's starting to win back a little bit of that spectrum warfare that's awesome.
I read also in an article today that the Ukrainians are taking some pretty significant hits and damage in and around Kharkiv. In the electronic warfare realm, one of the things that some of the soldiers have reported and I'll share the article with you here in a little bit, was that they're using basically commercial-grade UAVs and as they're taking them off, Russian soldiers are basically capturing them through the electromagnetic spectrum and then flying them across the border and then eventually turning and using them against the Ukrainians. So, the Ukrainians don't have any encryption system on their UAVs. They're not military grade. So, they're having challenges. There's a good and a bad example for you for both Ukraine and Russia.
Ken Miller (14:43):
So in talking about the EW systems that are going over, particularly the HARM, they're not fully integrated. Does the use of the HARM change the risk equation for Russian forces?
Jeff Fisher (14:55):
Sure. I think there's going to be a lot to learn at how these operate. I mean, to be fair, there's going to be some operators who watch them come in and imagine that they're not necessarily tracking on them and they're going to die, right? So, that's a lesson learned. There's other guys who are going to turn them off after they start learning some of their friends die and they won't necessarily turn it on.
There's a lot of different tactics that you can use with preemptive shots. You can shoot multiple preemptive shots over a span of let's say five, 10, 15 minutes and for a short period of time, you can buy, right? Because you just spent 10 missiles, you can buy a window of the electromagnetic spectrum and by definition, because they're HARMs, air superiority for a short amount of time. If that's enough time for you to get a couple fighters or bombers into a given area and strike a key target, that's a financial choice. Is it worth it to spend that precious resource? Because I don't think Ukraine's to the point where they have unlimited HARMs yet, but you'd learn from that as well. How willing is Russia to fight through that HARM missile system? If we keep doing it, are they going to build a counter to preemptive targeting? I don't know.
Ken Miller (16:08):
And that gets to the next question. What is the potential downside of this?
Jeff Fisher (16:12):
I think Russia knows everything that they need to know about HARMs, right? We shot them off a F-4G Wild Weasels back in Desert Storm. Not me personally, but the United States. They know the missile profile, they know the missile characteristics. I'd be shocked if they were surprised. And to be fair, the United States has gone through a requirements process and is upgrading. Last I knew, they were upgrading the harm to either a future version or another missile called AGM, which was another advanced version. Russia will do everything it can to learn the capabilities of that missile as soon as possible and getting rid of these HARMs, I don't think there's going to be much that Russia will learn.
They will learn about their capabilities against the S-300 and S-400, which until recently, I don't think we've been shooting at them. But again, it's a limited capability, right? Because you're only using the emitter libraries located within the missile. It's not integrated into the system. So, I think it would be foolhardy on the Russians part to actually just say, "Hey, we understand HARMs against S-300s and 400s because they were shot at us. Doesn't matter if it's coming from an F-18G or an F-16CJ, it's the same thing as MiG-29." That would probably be a very bad mistake to make.
Ken Miller (17:22):
One of the things that we talked about, and you raised it in your earlier answer, is there's oftentimes cascading effects when you have or don't have EMS superiority. And some of those effects are not usually always seen in terms of medical evacuations and hospital operations and so forth, that are a result of either having or not having EMS superiority. So, when you look at Ukraine, where are we at on being able to achieve or where are they at on being able to achieve EMS superiority? What are we learning about our ability to either attain that or help our allies attain that in conflict?
Jeff Fisher (17:59):
Yeah. I think fixing the battle space in Ukraine to get it to where we would probably want it to be is going to take years and I think many of us would hope and pray that this does not become a year's long war. But it's disappointing to learn many lessons that we continually learn over and over again in militaries.
In 2016 to 2018, I was the defense attache assigned in Kosovo and at the time, the usareur commander was a gentleman by the name of Lieutenant General Ben Hodges and Ben Hodges, who right later wrongly was frustrated at the ability to move ground based military equipment around Europe. If you recall, just prior to 2014 before the big Crimea invasion, we'd gotten rid of all heavy tanks and heavy assets in Ukraine and 2014 hits and all of a sudden Ben Hodges, the usareur commander is going to get many of them back.
And what he quickly finds is he can't move ground equipment through all of Europe. Freedom of movement in Europe for civilians, there's an article called the Schengen Agreement where people don't have to get checked at borders and they can move around within the European Union nations. So, what Ben Hodges wanted to create was called a Military Schengen, where if you were an EU or a NATO member, you could move tanks and trucks in support of natal missions across borders and he made a little bit of headway on that, but what he also found was many of the bridges and roads weren't stressed for AB-1 Abram tanks and the train tracks couldn't carry Abram's tanks.
It's a big issue actually over here and it's still an issue. And Ben Hodges retired. He's living in Germany and he's working for a major think tank because he's committed to this and he's doing everything he can to try and fix it. He's also committed to helping the Ukrainians in the war, but that's just one more example of... And the reason I bring that up is the example is as an Air Force guy, I'll take a little bit of hit. We said, "we'll just be able to fly things everywhere. We'll just keep building more rotary wing, we'll build more C-17s and we'll fly everything over. We don't need to move things across the land," and that's just not true.
Ken Miller (20:01):
I'm glad you raised that point. I wanted to ask you when we talk about EMS superiority, oftentimes the conversation goes right to offensive electronic warfare, jamming operations and so forth, but when you're trying to project, achieve, or sustain EMS superiority, there's a lot more that goes into it. We talk about it being across DOTMLPF. Not just operations, but doctrine and leadership and of course, you raised the issue of logistics is a huge piece.
Jeff Fisher (20:32):
Yeah. I think I know what you're getting at and it's interesting, I was interviewing or talking to a Ukrainian soldier that had just come back from the front of the war, I want to say about two months ago. And I asked him, I said, "Hey, how hard is it to talk on the radios? How bad is the jamming," right? "How effective is it for shutting down your comms?" And his answer was, "We can't talk to anybody. Everything is getting jammed." And I said, "Oh, okay. Well, because you guys have jammers too, who from your side is making sure that they're not jamming your frequencies? And how do you know that the Russians are the ones jamming you or how do you not know that you've set up your antennas on two different sides of a hill and you just don't have a line of sight?"
He's not a radio guy, he's not an EW guy. He is an infantry guy and God bless him, he didn't know the answer to that. So, I often complained back in the day when I was an EW staff officer that we need to have a joint restrictive frequency list and it's got to be tight and we can't be jamming each other and there'd always be mistakes, right? There'd always be fog of war and there'd always be a few mistakes, but probably nothing on the level of what the Ukrainians are seeing and I guess we actually, compared to Ukraine, we probably did a pretty effective job.
When you talk about MISO and you talk about combined effects in the battle space, I really like the idea where AOC is going when they talk about cohesive and combined effects because it's important. But I pray to God that as we're talking about that, we're doing exactly what you just brought up and that is combined effects in the battle space to include logistics, medical, things like that. How does EW support those? We're learning that EW does support them in the Ukraine because without electromagnetic spectrum superiority, there's more guys dying sadly in Ukraine because they have to take roads back to get medical care and some of them just aren't making it.
Ken Miller (22:14):
Last question to pull away a little bit from the topic here at hand, you mentioned that early on in the episode, you're writing a new book and I thought I wanted to give you an opportunity to talk a little bit more about that. You're a military fiction author, you have some great books out there, highly encourage our listeners to pick them up and take a read, but you're working on a new one that's actually very relevant. Could you tell us a little bit more about that and where that's going?
Jeff Fisher (22:42):
Sure. Yeah, and I appreciate that question. So, my first book's out. It's been out for about a year. It's called Live Range. It's about a Navy Seal. It all focuses around him and his friends basically getting out and trying to do some good in the world as opposed to doing bad.
My second book called Balkan Reprisal will be out and it'll be released October 11th. And on this book I focused heavily on leveraging my electronic warfare history. So, you're going to see Compass Call being operationally used in the war. You're going to see Commando Solo doing PSYOPS, you're going to see information operations, you're going to see EMP or laser weapons, energy weapons, and many of those types of things in a fictitious war that builds up between Serbia and Kosovo. All the same characters. So, if you really want to understand the book, you'd have to read the first one, but book two does stand alone. Book three is called Afghan Ghost. It was recently approved by the DOD for security. So, it's in heavy editing right now. And then book four is called Russian Puppeteers, like I said. And that's a book about a part of the Ukrainian War. So, thanks for the question.
Ken Miller (23:46):
And what is the long term plan for the release of that? Are we talking next year or two years?
Jeff Fisher (23:52):
No. So, my plan is, like I said, the Balkan Reprisal will come out October 11th. It'll be available on Amazon starting that day. Anyone who gets the book within the first week is going to get a special edition. After the first week, the special editions will go away and then Afghan Ghost will probably be released around January. So, both of them will come out in the next... And that's a book basically about the same team going in and the United States has pulled out of Afghanistan and it's about that team going in to save some of the Afghans that had helped them while they were assigned and kept them alive, basically, whether they were interpreters or other folks. So, that'll come out hopefully early next year and then mid-next year, you'll see book four come out.
Ken Miller (24:31):
That is all the time we have for today. I want to thank my guest, Colonel Fisher for joining me. It's always great to have you on the show. Hope to have you on again soon and I will see you probably in a couple months down at the AOC Symposium here in Washington DC. So, looking forward to catching up with you in person. Thanks for joining me.
Jeff Fisher (24:48):
Yeah. Ken, thank you so much. I truly do appreciate it. It's always great to talk to you and the AOC listeners I love to death because their knowledge of EW is something that you don't find in the average crowd. I do look forward to seeing you at the AOC Convention and if anyone does buy my book and they find me, feel free to hit me up for a signature. Happy to do it.
Ken Miller (25:06):
That will conclude this episode of From The Crow's Nest. I'd like to thank my guest, retired US Air Force Colonel Jeff Fisher for joining me. Also, don't forget to review, share, and subscribe to this podcast. We always enjoy hearing from our listeners. So, please feel free to take a few moments to share your thoughts and recommendations on the show. That's it for today. Thanks for listening.