Jan Weatherhead writes from Washington: They say here that Iranians are jamming and hacking Syrian rebel communications – ‘they’ being the United States’ Electronic Intelligence (ELINT). And they should know, they do it themselves 24/7 year in year out. In the words of one song, Everybody’s Doing It.
But why would Iran be jamming or interfering with Syria Free Army (SFA) communications? Simple: Iran is on Syria’s side and if anyone doubts the level of that support just take on board the words of first Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi who says publicly that Iran’s support is ‘unchangeable’ and comes with all sorts of assistance and, as the secretary of Iran’s National Security Council, Saeed Jalili puts it, Iran remains for the Syrian people ‘more than ever before in the face of foreign pressure.’
Now when you grasp that regional alliance, then you can see why Iran with a relatively sophisticated low intensity military capability, would be supporting the Syrian army and air force by doing something very simple: hacking into SFA communications and disrupting capabilities – which aren’t any higher than uncoordinated militia status anyway.
Should we be surprised? Not at all. Nor should we be surprised if the intelligence folk here in Washington have direct evidence that the Iranians are on the ground in Syria and that they are running electronic surveillance teams in Syria itself. Why not? This is as much Iran’s war as it is Syria’s.
What about Iranian capability in this area? To start with, just remember that ELINT capabilities have been around since World War Two albeit in a large-scale HQ operation (think Abwehr G312 and Enigma). Seven decades on, technology – especially miniaturisation – has made ELINT relatively simple to buy into.
Also, every military nation has an ELINT system and a subdivision that can hack, intercept and interrupt.
The limitations are obvious: the level of sophistication of ELINT held by any one group will define what can be monitored, hacked or jammed and over what distance this can happen – especially on a 24-hour mobile operation. The modern systems have to be capable of instant re-location and frequency hopping. At last comes a combination of all assets in mobility, gathering, monitoring and analysis sections. A big ask at one time, but not anymore.
You could buy on-line most of the equipment needed to hack into another army’s tactical communications.
What do the Iranians do with the capability? Firstly they can listen in to orders and deployments. Secondly they can jam so that orders cannot be heard. They shift frequencies so that one element gets, say, an order to move and assumes the other element of the movement has heard it only to find that it did not and that it is now isolated. Of almost equal importance – jamming, diverting and openly hacking can, and does, cause terrible panic, despondency and confusion in the units the ELINT team is targeting.
At one level, the SFA is not working at such a militarily sophisticated level that it coordinates with a wide spread of other units. We can criticise the SFA as being uncoordinated militias yet this is an advantage because it does not rely on anyone else. Here is the classic enemy of any authority fighting a low intensity war.
If all this sounds irrelevant to the march of carnage in Syria, then consider the following two points: the Iranians are not the only ones capable of hacking and jamming and, it is a simple version of one of the biggest advances in strategic planning – cyber warfare.
America at the very least, monitors divisional and tactical communications of Syria’s army, especially 4 Division commanded by Maher al Assad. At the right point it is possible to deflect the impact of the Syrian counter-insurgent operation. It has not happened – yet. Should however, there ever be, say, a drone attack on the al Assad HQs or wherever, then ELINT would precede it by a major degradation operation on the Syrian C3 – command, control and communications.
In the greater order of things of course is the existence of Cyber Warfare.
All major powers hack into other communications – including those of their allies. Each ELINT Cyber Warfare command has, or is working on, penetration and degradation and has been for half a century.
When, on March 23, 1983, President Ronald Reagan gave his first Star Wars speech, one of the assumptions behind what might one day be possible was the US capability of degrading satellites and land stations. It could do it then – 30 years ago. Why then would we be surprised at a mere battlefield hack and silent operation in Syria especially as the Iranians are not the only people with ELINT teams in the region – even in the country.
PS. Next time you speak on your mobile, just remember that anyone can listen to even your most private conversations. We’ve come a long way since Abwehr G312.