US military drones patrolling the skies over Syria have an operational issue: Russia is messing with them. Specifically, US officials tell NBC News, Russia is jamming their GPS signals, a tactic that seems to have started in earnest on smaller drones a few weeks ago after chemical attacks were suspected in Ghouta. For security reasons, the DOD isn't offering many details on the impact the jamming is having, but one official says the high-tech Russian gear is definitely having an effect, as it's able to get around jamming receivers and cut through even encrypted signals. It doesn't even take a lot to pull off such a stunt, Dr. Todd Humphreys, the director of UT Austin's Radionavigation Laboratory, tells NBC. "GPS receivers in most drones can be fairly easily jammed," he says.
The Russian military has apparently been up to these jamming hijinks for at least four years, when it was busted jamming UN drones trying to monitor Ukraine after Russia's invasion of Crimea. In February, it was revealed Russian forces in Syria had been instructed to jam 2G and 3G signals on cellphones, which can emit signals to drones, per the Moscow Times. Effects of such jamming, per Humphreys, can entail anything from "serious confusion" for the operator of the drone to causing the drone to stop working or crash. For now, the drones being targeted appear to be smaller surveillance units, not larger armed ones. Still, it's a serious matter. "It's like shooting at them with radio waves instead of bullets," Humphreys tells NBC. (The Russians might also want to mess with underwater communications cables.)