Vol. 14, No. 2 Summer 2023

by Kevin Freese, TRADOC G-2 Analyst

Combatants have used civilian communications networks since the invention of the telegraph, and wireless communications are no exception. Cellular phones provided targeting information and became targets themselves throughout the Global War on Terror. Smart phones have played a major role for several years now in strategic messaging and information operations. The U.S. Army previously forecast the critical importance of ubiquitous information technology in future competition as well as conflict.[1] Russia’s 2022-23 invasion of Ukraine reveals that future is now as smart phones have contributed directly to kinetic operations on a scale and to a degree never seen before on the battlefield.

Smart Phones Enabling Decisive Effects at Tactical Level in Ukraine

The use of smart phones by Ukrainian and Russian combatants and noncombatants alike is transforming command, control, communications, computing, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) on the battlefield. Smart phones have crowd-sourced forward observation and turned entire populations into battlefield sensors. Smart phones have provided commanders at all echelons with capabilities historically available only at upper echelons, improving both situational awareness and agile response capability. Use of smart phones has also introduced new vulnerabilities that combatants have exploited.

Smart Phones Crowdsource Forward Observers and Listening Posts. Ukraine has used smart phone apps to mitigate Russian unmanned aerial system (UAS) attacks, particularly on civilian and strategic targets. UAS must travel long distances before striking because of Ukraine’s large landmass. Forward-positioned teams, including civilians, with purpose-designed apps can observe and report on UAS movements. These reports are forwarded to a centralized system that plots likely targets and routes. Air defense forces then have enough lead time to plan interdiction. This use of spotters is reminiscent of British observer activities during WWII, when civilians would call in alerts about German air raids.[2]

Civilians are also using smart phones to observe and report on enemy positions. These positions are shared through a variety of means, including social media posts, and this precise geolocated information can and has been used for fires targeting. Ukraine has capitalized on this technology by creating specialized apps that anyone can use to report enemy activity. Every citizen is now a sensor, and anyone with a smart phone can be a forward observer.[3]

Smart Phones Deliver the Big Picture. Smart phones have enabled geospatial crisis monitoring, such as with the Live Universal Awareness Map (Liveuamap). Liveuamap has aggregated social and news media posts—many originating from smart phone apps—to provide real-time coverage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and other global crises since 2014. Private citizens and soldiers positioned in the conflict zone post live updates to social media. Liveuamap uses artificial intelligence to collect and sort data, which feeds its geospatial platform. The result is a crowdsourced, real-time operational picture.[4] What is innovative is how Liveuamap has tweaked an established business concept designed to assess marketed product trends and public opinion and used it to generate what is an economical and efficient common intelligence picture-common operating picture (CIP-COP).

Figure 1: Screenshot of the Liveuamap generated depiction of the Russian invasion in June 2023.[5]

Russian soldiers are also using geospatial apps to build their own CIP-COP. The Ukrainian Armed Forces Eastern Group Commander reported in April 2023 that Russian forces had been using the off-road exploring app AlpineQuest GPS to locate Ukrainian equipment positions and units, as well as to identify objectives and attack routes.[6] Russian forces can maintain an accurate, up-to-the-minute CIP-COP by using commercial, off-the-shelf tools.

Smart Phones Accelerate Counterbattery Fires. Soldiers can now use smart phones to respond to enemy fires. Russian military technology company VPK posted in January 2023 an account of Russian soldiers using self-created smart phone apps to triangulate Ukrainian artillery positions. Small teams of soldiers with smart phones or tablets disperse a few kilometers behind the line of contact. They use an app that detects the acoustic signature created when Ukrainian artillery guns fire. Their devices relay the information to another app that triangulates the position of the gun. A UAS confirms and refines the location. The command then targets the location with counterbattery fires.[7] Artillery sound ranging using acoustic triangulation has been around for a long time but required time, specialized training, and advanced equipment. The smart phone has pushed this capability down to the lowest echelons with minimal training and sustainment requirements. This results in a significantly reduced counterbattery fire response time.

Figure 2: Sound ranging schematic.[8]

Smart Phones Reveal Troop Assemblies. The efficiencies provided by battlefield smart phones come at a price, including at the cost of the users’ lives. Widespread use of personal devices is an operational security (OPSEC) vulnerability exploited by combatants on both sides. Cellular devices constantly send signals to communication towers. Both Russia and Ukraine have intercepted these signals to geolocate enemy troop positions. Russia has unmanned aircraft dedicated to emulating cell phone towers to exploit this vulnerability.[9] Russian forces launched a cruise missile strike on 13 March 2022 against Ukrainian Foreign Legion personnel at Yavoriv, killing more than 30 personnel. Russian forces targeted the site because Russian private military company Wagner personnel had detected a group of 12-14 smart phones with British country codes (+44). Wagner forwarded information to Russian intelligence, which assessed the site as a Foreign Legion activity.[10] The surge of foreign fighters early in the war to support Ukraine was highly symbolic, so Russian commanders likely considered their base to be of strategic importance.

Figure 3: Soldiers manually conduct sound ranging in WWI.[11]

Implications for U.S. Army Training

Smart phones, with the wide range of capabilities they enable, are evolving conditions on the battlefield that contribute to increased transparency. Modern militaries are supplementing units’ organic systems with civilian communications technology to achieve large-scale kinetic effects across the battlefield. Militaries are seeing improvements in the responsiveness and adaptability of lower echelons using C4ISR capabilities historically reserved for higher echelons. Improved precision means fires are regaining primacy among warfighting functions. Civilian noncombatants have an expanding role in warfare. The fog of war is continuing to evolve.

Ubiquitous information technology is a condition of the modern battlefield and should be replicated in training. Smart phones bring capabilities and vulnerabilities to both Red and Blue forces. Conditions to replicate this dynamic could include the following:

  • Civilians’ Growing Role in Hostilities. Distinguishing between combatants and noncombatants—and responding appropriately—will be increasingly difficult. Red forces will employ civilians regularly and treat local populations with much harsher rules of engagement than would be acceptable for Blue.
  • Red Targeting of Civilian Networks. Red forces targeting of civilian networks for their own security will alter the pattern of life and possibly increase movement of noncombatants on the battlefield.
  • Red Able To Be More Adaptable. Mobile apps will democratize capabilities that allow Red forces to be more agile and adaptive to conditions on the ground than they historically would have been. Their fires will be commensurately more precise and responsive.
  • Expand Options for Communication. Effective disintegration tactics against Red networks will be more difficult as civilian networks provide alternate communications channels.
  • Stress Additional OPSEC Measures. Congregation of phones and even possession of a U.S.-registered cell phone could be enough to reveal location to the enemy. Red forces will likely target clusters of troops with smart phones, even if these devices are not in active use. The location of Blue force operational centers, assembly areas, supply points, and other areas of congregation may be transparent to the Red forces.


[1] US Army Training and Doctrine Command, The Operational Environment and the Changing Character of Warfare TRADOC Pamphlet 525-92 (October 7, 2019), hxxps://adminpubs.tradoc.army.mil/pamphlets/TP525-92.pdf and US Army Training and Doctrine Command, Competition in 2035: Anticipating Chinese Exploitation of Operational Environments (August 15, 2019), hxxps://community.apan.org/wg/gckn/m/chinaproduct/411312.

[2] Michael Peck, “Ukrainians with cellphones and machine guns are forcing Russia to change how it launches its drone attacks,” Business Insider (May 8, 2023), hxxps://www.businessinsider.com/ukraine-air-defenses-force-russia-to-change-drones-attack-methods-2023-5.

[3] Lukasz Olejnik, “Smart Phones Blur the Line between Civilian and Combatant,” Wired (June 6, 2022), hxxps://www.wired.com/story/smartphones-ukraine-civilian-combatant/.

[4] Rodion Rozhkovsky and Alexander Bil’chenko, Live Universal Awareness Map (June 8, 2023). hxxps://liveuamap.com/.

[5] Rodion Rozhkovsky and Alexander Bil’chenko, Live Universal Awareness Map (June 8, 2023). hxxps://liveuamap.com/. (Used with permission “You may use our data and maps, including map tiles and areas polygons partially, or in the whole in your work, with reference to liveuamap.com.” hxxps://liveuamap.com/about#terms.)

[6] Alona Mazurenko, “Russians Use Smart phone App that Contains Coordinates of Ukrainian Positions,” Ukrainska Pravda (April 23, 2023), hxxps://www.pravda.com.ua/eng/news/2023/04/25/7399327/.

[7] Военно-промышленная компания (VPK), “Российские военные научились засекать позиции ВСУ с помощью Смартфонов,” (January 13, 2023), hxxps://vpk.name/news/674382_rossiiskie_voennye_nauchilis_zasekat_pozicii_vsu_s_pomoshyu _smartfonov.html.

[8] Wikimedia Commons User Ziggle, “Example of a Sound Ranging Operation,” Wikimedia Commons (May 15, 2006), hxxps://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Artillery_sound_ranging_schematic_-_en.png. (Public Domain)

[9] Chris Stokel-Walker, “Mobile Phones as Weapons,” New Scientist 254, no. 3382 (April 16, 2022), 10.

[10] Jack Hardy, “UK Fighters’ Phone Signal ‘Led to Strike’ at Training Site,” Sunday Telegraph (March 20, 2022), 7.

[11] Lori S. Tagg, “Sound rangers identify enemy artillery during Great War,” U.S. Army (March 20, 2017), hxxps://www.army.mil/article/184559/sound_rangers_identify_enemy_artillery_during_great_war. (Public Domain)




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