Report: Russia Mastered Jamming U.S. Drones in Syria

An MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) flies by during a training mission at Creech Air Force Base on November 17, 2015 in Indian Springs, Nevada. The Pentagon has plans to expand combat air patrols flights by remotely piloted aircraft by as much as 50 percent over the next few …
Isaac Brekken/Getty

The Russian military has figured out a method of scrambling American drones operating in Syria that can significantly hinder military operations, officials told NBC News on Tuesday.

Four U.S. officials told NBC News that Russian forces began jamming the drones a few weeks ago over concerns that the U.S. was planning a military response to reports of the Syrian regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians.

According to one official, the move had a serious effect on U.S. military operations. Small surveillance aircraft were reportedly unable to receive signals, although the Pentagon denied this report.

“The U.S. military maintains sufficient countermeasures and protections to ensure the safety of our manned and unmanned aircraft, our forces and the missions they support,” said Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon.

Dr. Todd Humphreys, the director of the Radionavigation Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin, told NBC that the jamming of drones is not an especially sophisticated operation.

“At the very least it could cause some serious confusion for the drone operator on the ground if the drone reports an incorrect position or is lost,” Humphrey’s said.

“They are a little less hostile looking than a kinetic bullet but sometimes the effect can be just as damaging,” he said of the power of cyber attacks. “It’s like shooting at them with radio waves instead of bullets.”

On Monday, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vassily Nebenzia, warned of “grave repercussions” should Trump order additional military strikes, with a decision expected to be made in the next 24 hours.

“Through the relevant channels we already conveyed to the U.S. that armed force under mendacious pretext against Syria — where, at the request of the legitimate government of a country, Russian troops have been deployed — could lead to grave repercussions,” Nebenazia said.

Trump, meanwhile, has indicated that “nothing is off the table” in response to the alleged attack, arguing that the U.S. “can’t let atrocities happen” given its military power responsibility.

Syrian airspace has become a major source of tension between the U.S. and Russia in recent years, as Russian troops continue to back the Assad regime’s position in the civil war and the U.S. leads a coalition against Islamic State.

Russian fighter jets are known to regularly stalk American drones, leading to a number of retaliation attacks and tense diplomatic incidents.  American pilots have also spoken of the difficulty of avoiding Russian warplanes due to their aggressiveness and unpredictability.

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