Russia is successfully jamming American drones in Syria

WASHINGTON — The Russian military has been jamming some U.S. military drones operating in the skies over Syria, seriously affecting American military operations, according to four U.S. officials.

The Russians began jamming some smaller U.S. drones several weeks ago, the officials said, after a series of suspected chemical weapons attacks on civilians in rebel-held eastern Ghouta. The Russian military was concerned the U.S. military would retaliate for the attacks and began jamming the GPS systems of drones operating in the area, the officials explained.

Jamming, which means blocking or scrambling a drone's reception of a signal from a GPS satellite, can be uncomplicated, according to Dr. Todd Humphreys, the director of the Radionavigation Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin.

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April 2018 Syria attack leaves dozens dead
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April 2018 Syria attack leaves dozens dead
DAMASCUS, SYRIA - APRIL 07: An affected Syrian child receives medical treatment after Assad regime forces allegedly conducted poisonous gas attack to Duma town of Eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria on April 07, 2018. (Photo by Halil el-Abdullah/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
DAMASCUS, SYRIA - APRIL 07: An affected Syrian man receives medical treatment after Assad regime forces allegedly conducted poisonous gas attack to Duma town of Eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria on April 07, 2018. (Photo by Halil el-Abdullah/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
DAMASCUS, SYRIA - APRIL 07: An affected Syrian kid waits to receive medical treatment after Assad regime forces allegedly conducted poisonous gas attack to Duma town of Eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria on April 07, 2018. (Photo by Halil el-Abdullah/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
DAMASCUS, SYRIA - APRIL 07: Affected Syrian kids wait to receive medical treatment after Assad regime forces allegedly conducted poisonous gas attack to Duma town of Eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria on April 07, 2018. (Photo by Halil el-Abdullah/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
DAMASCUS, SYRIA - APRIL 07: An affected Syrian man lies on a stretcher as he waits to get medical treatment after Assad regime forces allegedly conducted poisonous gas attack to Duma town of Eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria on April 07, 2018. (Photo by Halil el-Abdullah/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
DAMASCUS, SYRIA - APRIL 07: Affected Syrian kids wait to receive medical treatment after Assad regime forces allegedly conducted poisonous gas attack to Duma town of Eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria on April 07, 2018. (Photo by Fadi Abdullah/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
IDLIB, SYRIA - APRIL 08: A man holds a photo of a victim baby as he and other demonstrators gather to protest against Assad regime forces' allegedly conducted poisonous gas attack to Duma town of Eastern Ghouta, in Saraqib town of Idlib, Syria on April 08, 2018. (Photo by Mahmut Bekkur/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
DAMASCUS, SYRIA - APRIL 07: (----EDITORIAL USE ONLY MANDATORY CREDIT - 'SYRIAN CIVIL DEFENSE (WHITE HELMETS) / HANDOUT' - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS----) Affected Syrian kids receive medical treatment after Assad regime forces allegedly conducted poisonous gas attack to Douma town of Eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria on April 07, 2018. At least 78 civilians dead, including women and children, according to the initial findings. (Photo by WHITE HELMETS / HANDOUT/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
DAMASCUS, SYRIA - APRIL 08: An affected Syrian kid receives medical treatment after Assad regime forces allegedly conducted poisonous gas attack to Duma town of Eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria on April 08, 2018. At least 78 civilians dead, including women and children, according to the initial findings. (Photo by Mouneb Taim/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
DAMASCUS, SYRIA - APRIL 08: An affected Syrian kid receives medical treatment after Assad regime forces allegedly conducted poisonous gas attack to Duma town of Eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria on April 08, 2018. At least 78 civilians dead, including women and children, according to the initial findings. (Photo by Mouneb Taim/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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"GPS receivers in most drones can be fairly easily jammed," he said

Humphreys, an expert on the spoofing and jamming of GPS, warns this could have a significant impact on U.S. drones, causing them to malfunction or even crash. "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, he said.

U.S. analysts first caught the Russian military jamming drones in eastern Ukraine four years ago, after the invasion of Crimea, according to Humphreys. He said the jammers were initially detected as faint signals from space, bouncing off the earth's surface. The jammers "had a pretty significant impact" on the United Nations surveillance drones that were attempting to monitor the area, grounding the fleet for days and halting intelligence gathering from the air.

The Defense Department will not say whether the jamming is causing drones to crash, citing operational security. "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.

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MQ-9 Reaper drones
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MQ-9 Reaper drones
INDIAN SPRINGS, NV - NOVEMBER 17: (EDITORS NOTE: Image has been reviewed by the U.S. Military prior to transmission.) 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 years to meet an increased need for surveillance, reconnaissance and lethal airstrikes in more areas around the world. (Photo by Isaac Brekken/Getty Images)
INDIAN SPRINGS, NV - NOVEMBER 17: (EDITORS NOTE: Image has been reviewed by the U.S. Military prior to transmission.) An MQ-1B Predator remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) flies past a MQ-9 Reaper RPA as it taxis 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 years to meet an increased need for surveillance, reconnaissance and lethal airstrikes in more areas around the world. (Photo by Isaac Brekken/Getty Images)
INDIAN SPRINGS, NV - NOVEMBER 17: (EDITORS NOTE: Image has been reviewed by the U.S. Military prior to transmission.) 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 years to meet an increased need for surveillance, reconnaissance and lethal airstrikes in more areas around the world. (Photo by Isaac Brekken/Getty Images)
INDIAN SPRINGS, NV - NOVEMBER 17: (EDITORS NOTE: Image has been reviewed by the U.S. Military prior to transmission.) An MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) is prepared for 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 years to meet an increased need for surveillance, reconnaissance and lethal airstrikes in more areas around the world. (Photo by Isaac Brekken/Getty Images)
INDIAN SPRINGS, NV - NOVEMBER 17: (EDITORS NOTE: Image has been reviewed by the U.S. Military prior to transmission.) An MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) taxis 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 years to meet an increased need for surveillance, reconnaissance and lethal airstrikes in more areas around the world. (Photo by Isaac Brekken/Getty Images)
INDIAN SPRINGS, NV - NOVEMBER 17: (EDITORS NOTE: Image has been reviewed by the U.S. Military prior to transmission.) An MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) taxis 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 years to meet an increased need for surveillance, reconnaissance and lethal airstrikes in more areas around the world. (Photo by Isaac Brekken/Getty Images)
CREECH AIR FORCE BASE, NV - AUGUST 08: U.S. Air Force Maj. Casey Tidgewell inspects an MQ-9 Reaper as he performs a pre-flight check August 8, 2007 at Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs, Nevada. The Reaper is the Air Force's first 'hunter-killer' unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), designed to engage time-sensitive targets on the battlefield as well as provide intelligence and surveillance. The jet-fighter sized Reapers are 36 feet long with 66-foot wingspans and can fly for up to 14 hours fully loaded with laser-guided bombs and air-to-ground missiles. They can fly twice as fast and high as the smaller MQ-1 Predators, reaching speeds of 300 mph at an altitude of up to 50,000 feet. The aircraft are flown by a pilot and a sensor operator from ground control stations. The Reapers are expected to be used in combat operations by the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Iraq within the next year. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Capt. Ryan Jodoi, a UAV pilot, flies an MQ-9 Reaper while Airman 1st Class Patrick Snyder controls a full motion video camera at Kandahar Air Base, Afghanistan, March 13, 2009, in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. James L. Harper Jr.) (Photo by JAMES LEE HARPER JR./USAirForce/Handout/Corbis via Getty Images)
CREECH AIR FORCE BASE, NV - AUGUST 08: U.S. Air Force Maj. Casey Tidgewell pilots an MQ-9 Reaper on a training mission from a ground control station August 8, 2007 at Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs, Nevada. The Reaper is the Air Force's first 'hunter-killer' unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), designed to engage time-sensitive targets on the battlefield as well as provide intelligence and surveillance. The jet-fighter sized Reapers are 36 feet long with 66-foot wingspans and can fly for up to 14 hours fully loaded with laser-guided bombs and air-to-ground missiles. They can fly twice as fast and high as the smaller MQ-1 Predators, reaching speeds of 300 mph at an altitude of up to 50,000 feet. The aircraft are flown by a pilot and a sensor operator from ground control stations. The Reapers are expected to be used in combat operations by the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Iraq within the next year. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
INDIAN SPRINGS, NV - NOVEMBER 17: (EDITORS NOTE: Image has been reviewed by the U.S. Military prior to transmission.) Two remotely piloted aircraft (RPA), an MQ-1B Predator (L) and an MQ-9 Reaper, are parked in a hanger 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 years to meet an increased need for surveillance, reconnaissance and lethal airstrikes in more areas around the world. (Photo by Isaac Brekken/Getty Images)
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But one official confirmed the tactic is having an operational impact on U.S. military operations in Syria.

The officials said the equipment being used was developed by the Russian military and is very sophisticated, proving effective even against some encrypted signals and anti-jamming receivers. The drones impacted so far are smaller surveillance aircraft, as opposed to the larger Predators and Reapers that often operate in combat environments and can be armed.

Dr. Humphreys says that though the attacks occur in cyberspace, the results are still serious.

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

17 PHOTOS
Heartbreaking scenes from Eastern Ghouta, Syria
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Heartbreaking scenes from Eastern Ghouta, Syria
Six-month-old twins Safa and Marwa, who suffer from malnutrition, are seen at their home in the Hazzeh area, in the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria, October 25, 2017. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh SEARCH "KHABIEH MALNUTRITION" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Two-and-a-half year old Hala al-Nufi, who suffers from a metabolic disorder which is worsening due to the siege and food shortages in the eastern Ghouta, reacts as she sits on a bed in the Saqba area, in the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria, October 25, 2017. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh SEARCH "KHABIEH MALNUTRITION" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
A Syrian shovels away debris from the higher floor of a building that was reportedly shelled by regime forces in the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta town of Kafr Batna on the outskirts of Damascus on November 20, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / ABDULMONAM EASSA (Photo credit should read ABDULMONAM EASSA/AFP/Getty Images)
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUALS COVERAGE OF SCENES OF DEATH AND INJURY An injured student lies on a bed at a field hospital in the town of Jisreen, in the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria October 31, 2017. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh TEMPLATE OUT
DAMASCUS, SYRIA - NOVEMBER 20: People inspect the debris of a building after Assad regime's warcrafts carried out airstrikes over residential areas of Kafr Batna town of the Eastern Ghouta region of Damascus in Syria on November 20, 2017. It is reported that 9 civilians, including 4 children were killed after the attack. (Photo by Anas Damashqy/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUAL COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY OR DEATH A wounded man is seen lying in Douma hospital after heavy shelling in the rebel-held besieged town of Douma, eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria, November 19, 2017. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh TEMPLATE OUT
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUAL COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY OR DEATH A wounded man is seen lying in Douma hospital after heavy shelling in the rebel-held besieged town of Douma, eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria, November 19, 2017. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
A man walks on rubble after an airstrike in the rebel-held city of Douma, in the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta Syria November 2, 2017. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
Two-and-a-half year old Hala al-Nufi, who suffers from a metabolic disorder which is worsening due to the siege and food shortages in the eastern Ghouta, is held by her uncle in the Saqba area, in the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria, October 25, 2017. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh SEARCH "KHABIEH MALNUTRITION" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
Children wait to be examined from Unicef health workers in Kafra Batna in the Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta, Syria October 30, 2017. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUALS COVERAGE OF SCENES OF DEATH AND INJURY An injured student lies on a bed at a field hospital in the town of Jisreen, in the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria October 31, 2017. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh TEMPLATE OUT
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUAL COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY OR DEATH Injured students lie on beds at a field hospital in the town of Jisreen, in the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria October 31, 2017. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
Smoke rises at a damaged site in Ain Tarma, eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria, September 14, 2017. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
Children hold corncobs at Ain Tarma, eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria July 19, 2017. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
A Syrian child is seen walking near International Red Cross vehicle in the rebel-held city of Douma, in the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria November 12, 2017. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
A Syrian woman walks past damaged buildings in Douma, in the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria November 15, 2017. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
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