The global proliferation of smartphones has been blamed for a host of social ills, from isolation among teens to skyrocketing numbers of traffic accidents. But troops using their phones during wartime face a different danger: Every call, text or TikTok could make them a target.
Russian officials and state media outlets have been grasping for answers as to how Ukraine could have killed dozens — or, going by Ukrainian accounts, hundreds — of Russian troops in a single rocket attack on a barracks in Makiivka, in the occupied Donetsk region, on New Year’s Day. On Wednesday, the Russian Defense Ministry gave its answer: Military personnel using cellphones, in violation of an official ban, was the “main reason” the Ukrainians were able to locate and destroy the facility.
For what it’s worth, some commentators and Russian bloggers question this narrative, saying it’s a way for commanders to deflect blame for the failure onto rank-and-file troops. But there’s no question that cellphones — and the nonstop stream of data they emit — have posed a consistent problem for the Russian military since the initial invasion last year. And it’s not just a Russian problem: other militaries around the world have faced similar issues.
Have phone, will travel
In the early weeks of the war, there was abundant reporting that Russian forces were relying on unsecured communications to a shocking degree. Even though most Russian units were believed to have been equipped with secure radio equipment, they often used their own phones to communicate with each other anyway — either because it was easier, because the equipment they had been issued was defective, or just because of poor discipline and planning for an operation that many troops did not believe would happen until they were literally crossing the Ukrainian border.
Once Ukrainian authorities realized the Russians were communicating on their own phones inside the country, they cut Russian numbers off the country’s network. After that, many Russian troops began seizing phones from Ukrainian civilians, and using them instead. That only made it easier for the Ukrainians to track the Russians’ movements.
This had a number of benefits for Ukraine. In some cases, intercepted calls from Russian soldiers were circulated on social media to show the planning of attacks that would later be labeled as war crimes; other intercepted conversations demonstrated the poor morale among the invading forces. In other cases, private cellphone signals were used to locate and attack high-value Russian targets. U.S. officials said in March that in at least one case, a cellphone signal was used to geolocate and kill a Russian general and his staff.
Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, the former commander of U.S. forces in Europe, told Grid in April that the Russians either “didn’t have confidence or didn’t have their own tactical network like we do … That’s why so many of these guys are getting killed. It’s because of arrogance or lack of operational experience and understanding the danger of talking on the cellphone.”
Over the past year, Russian operational security has improved, says Dmitri Alperovitch, chairman of the Silverado Policy Accelerator and a military technology analyst.
“The Russians are now prohibiting [cellphones] from being used on the front lines,” he told Grid. “They’ve dramatically improved the security of their communications since the early days of the war, when commanders were regularly using them for communications because their radios weren’t working.”
However, Alperovitch also says that the Russian military has had less success in stopping troops behind the front lines, like those who were stationed at the barracks in Makiivka, from reaching for their phones to contact loved ones and friends back home, or just to amuse themselves.
“Most of what happens in war is sitting around waiting for action,” he said. “People get bored and morale drops, so it’s important to allow soldiers to entertain themselves in various ways, and it’s difficult to control.”
A global problem
That this is still such a problem is notable given that Russian authorities have known about it for years. The Russian government banned troops from carrying smartphones in 2019 after investigative journalists were able to use phone data to reveal the military’s secretive deployments in Ukraine and Syria — including troops involved in the downing of a Malaysian passenger plane over Ukraine in 2014.
Despite those problems, and the cellphone-related deaths in the early stages of the war in Ukraine, the Russians don’t appear to have done much about it.
While it might be tempting to see this as an example of incompetence or dysfunction on the part of the Russian military, it has also been a dilemma for commanders around the world, including in the U.S. military.
In 2017, analysts were able to use data uploaded to the fitness app Strava to locate classified U.S. military bases in Afghanistan and Syria. By logging their runs around base perimeters, troops were essentially drawing digital maps of their positions.
During a training operation in the Mojave Desert in 2020, a U.S. Marine got his unit “killed” after posting a selfie.
China’s military issued a new set of guidelines on phone use in 2016 after undisclosed military bases were revealed by troops using a popular taxi-hailing app.
And just last November, Polish troops deployed along the border with Belarus — a close Russian ally — revealed their location to the Belarusians by leaving the dating apps on their phones turned on.
Some apps have been the cause of particular concern. The U.S. military has banned troops from downloading TikTok onto government-issued devices because of security concerns linked to its Chinese ownership. Troops have been encouraged not to use the phenomenally popular video-sharing app on their personal devices either, but a quick scan of the #military and #army hashtags on TikTok reveals that this guideline is not being scrupulously followed in the American military.
At a recent event hosted by George Washington University’s Defense Writers Group, Gen. David Berger, commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, told reporters that the risks posed by cellphones are one of the most important technological lessons the U.S. military is learning in Ukraine.
“Every Marine, every soldier, every sailor grows up with these now,” he said. “They don’t think anything about pressing a button. This is what they do all day long. Now we have to completely undo 18 years of communicating all day long and tell them, ‘That’s bad, that will get you killed.’”
More than the HIMARS rocket launchers (which were used to destroy the Makiivka facility), the NASAMS air defense systems, or any six-letter acronym weapons system, the cellphone may be remembered as the defining technology of the Ukraine War.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has used his phone’s selfie mode to turn himself into a global icon of resistance. Civilians are using their phones to detect incoming drone strikes. Troops on both sides are using their phones to provide viewers around the world with unprecedented imagery of front-line combat, and war crimes investigators with evidence. Not to mention the occasional viral dance video.
Smartphones are going to be part of war going forward whether commanders like it or not. The challenge will be how to weigh their benefits to morale and messaging with their very obvious drawbacks for operational security.
Or as Alperovitch joked, “These days with millennials, if you take away their phones, they might consider that cruel and unusual.”
Thanks to Dave Tepps for copy editing this article.