Radar jamming refers to rendering a radar system ineffective by saturating it with noise, typically by bombarding it with a high-intensity signal on the radar's operating frequency(es) in order to drown out any genuine returns in a sea of noise.

Early-warning radars are radar installations designed (as the name indicates) to provide an early warning in case of attack; during the Cold War, both the US and USSR deployed large networks of these radars to detect incoming bombers or missiles and give them time to retaliate.

Given that blinding these radars would have placed the blinder at an enormous advantage over the blindee (by, e.g., rendering the blindee unable to detect or react in time to an incoming first strike), why were there no US or Soviet attempts at jamming each other's early-warning radars?

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    Showing your hand too early would just let the opposition develop counter-measures, so this would only make sense at the start of a nuclear war. We haven't had one (yet) so there was nothing to be gained by doing it. – KillingTime Nov 21 at 18:28
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    KillingTime is right. Read news about ukranian/syrian wars (e.g. at strategypage.com). One important aspect for the US is to learn what Electronic Warfare tools Russia uses, to develop counter-measures. EW eavesdropping is also one major mission for EW planes which fly near potential enemies countries (specially near military exercises). Wartime can not depend on the same tools as peacetime, otherwise the enemy will never be surprised. – Luiz Nov 21 at 19:05
  • Who says they didn't..? – Bob Jarvis Nov 25 at 1:43
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    Same reason I don't remove all the security cameras from the bank just in case I want to rob it someday. – Owen Nov 26 at 3:14
up vote 83 down vote accepted

John Dallman definitely has the right of it, but I wanted to chime in with a small bit of additional information. The early warning system that the russians used, the Duga Radar (eventually known as the "Russian Woodpecker"), had an enormous range of operating frequencies. It would randomly hop between different channels, sometimes interrupting legitimate broadcasts, presumably in an attempt to subvert jamming attempts and avoid crowded signal bands. This is why it got the name "woodpecker"; people's radios would randomly start emitting a sharp "tap tap tap" noise.

As John answered, jamming the enemy's system is effectively a declaration of attack, and would have caused an all-out attack on both sides. But in addition to that, jamming the Duga network would have likely required jamming every single radio station, including the ones the allies were attempting to use.

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    This and rs.29 's are right answers. It is not easy/cost efficient to jam radar which was built to counter contemporary jamming techniques. – hamilyon Nov 23 at 8:21

The short answer is "Mutual Assured Destruction." If you jam the other side's radar effectively, the natural assumption is that you're attacking, so they'll attack in response. So you will set off a nuclear war with your first serious jamming attempt.

Under normal circumstances, you want the other side's early-warning radar to be working well so that they can see you are not attacking. There was at least one incident when a nuclear war nearly started accidentally owing to an early-warning system (not radar) malfunction.

The only time jamming makes sense is when you've already launched an all-out surprise attack. You start jamming just after the point when you believe the enemy will be aware of the scale of your attack. That handicaps their ability to take defensive precautions, a bit. But that's the most use it can be. Overall, a comprehensive, and thus expensive, jamming system is unlikely to be worth its cost.

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    But to be honest, at that scale, the precision of the early-warning is almost irrelevant... if it was an attack so large that it was deemed "necessary" to jam the early-warning, it is basically the apocalypse. – Nelson Nov 22 at 2:43
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    Super duper nitpick. The system you link for the 1983 incident was not a radar system. It was an optical system that used infrared to look for the exhaust of ICBMs. The point stands, though. – Fake Name Nov 22 at 5:49
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    I'm an agnostic, but God bless Stanislov Petrov. – Ian Kemp Nov 22 at 10:10
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    The short answer is that they knew it would be MAD. :P – Hanky Panky Nov 22 at 10:20
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    @d-b: It's kind of hard to persuade politicians to allocate lots of money to make a chunk of electromagnetic spectrum unusable to everyone, worldwide, when the threat that could come from its use isn't present yet. – John Dallman Nov 22 at 18:45

Radar jamming is not trivial

First of all, early warning radar (EWR) operate at very low frequencies, for example 7-19 MHz for Duga. For comparison, usual low frequency acquisition radars like P-19 operate in UHF band (300 MHz - 3 GHz). This is the reason why they need such large receivers and transmitters (rule of thumb, lower the frequency, bigger the antenna). Usual jamming aircraft would have difficulty even determining have they been "painted" by low frequency radar, not to mention the part where they had to transmit at the same frequency. Also, jamming techniques could be reduced to two groups:

  • Brute force jamming where you simply emit stronger signal at same frequency towards receiver. To do this, you would need to know emitting frequency of the radar (not easy, because as we mentioned before, it is not easy to detect low frequency radar) which might do "frequency hopping" while emitting. Also, your jamming platform is bound to be discovered, and likely destroyed if it emits for prolonged time interval - it is quite simple to triangulate the position of a jammer. Another concern is that during the arms race both sides developed various anti-jamming techniques like filtering signal from certain azimuth, aforementioned frequency hopping, or even shaping the signal to avoid random patterns from the jammers.

  • False targets is much more devious technique where you would attempt to create decoys for targeted radar system, either electronically or mechanically. Electronic false targets are usually created by jamming aircraft and ships, but unlike brute force jamming, they do not attempt to blind the radar, instead creating fake returns that resemble real targets. Again, because of low frequency, doing something like that is not easy. Mechanical decoys are smaller and cheaper than real radar targets (in this case nuclear missiles), but through various reflective techniques they do have similar radar return. One thing that is hard to mimic is missile speed and height. Usually, decoys would be deployed from the nuclear missile itself to overcome this.

Anyway, any successful jamming technique had to be kept a secret - otherwise the opponent could develop counter-measures or simply be frightened enough to launch first. The downside of this is that you could never be sure that your jamming actually works in the real world. Unlike conventional weapons, there were no proxy wars to test nuclear weapons.

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    Yeah... Hollywood made jamming look super easy...... – sofa general Nov 21 at 21:47
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    False target jamming for an early-warning radar would probably go down as the dumbest idea ever in the (then not very long anymore) history of all mankind. – Jörg W Mittag Nov 21 at 21:58
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    @JörgWMittag Indeed, unless you were actually launching an all-out nuclear attack and using the false targets as decoys to complicate ABM interception. – reirab Nov 22 at 5:22
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    @JörgWMittag the decoys would make intercepting the actual missiles a lot harder. For that reason bombers were at one time also given decoys they could deploy that would fly their own missions, hopefully confusing air defenses into sending interceptors after them rather than the actual aircraft. – jwenting Nov 22 at 7:17

A friend owned a medium-large dog, a male. We went for a walk one day, following a fence between her yard and her neighbor's, also between her dog and her neighbors male dog. As soon as they saw each other, they growled, bared their teeth, ears back, eyes wide open, frothing. They carried on this way until we reached a gap in the fence. Both dogs gave a start, became mute and immediately backed up so that the fence was between them again and commenced threatening each other with assured destruction.

That, in a nutshell, was the cold war. There had to be a fence that prevented the US and the USSR from killing each other. I wouldn't be surprised if we were sharing each other's radar technologies, in secret of course, just to be sure both had the latest and best and neither could be absolutely sure that their missiles wouldn't get past the other's defenses.

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    Your friend's dog has been on the Internet for quite a while now. – Dmitry Grigoryev Nov 22 at 13:18
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    Either that or more than two dogs have exhibited similar behavior, @DmitryGrigoryev. The entire point of the aphorism is that "this is predictable and not unique". – Beanluc Nov 25 at 19:54

How will they jam each other's radars without getting detected? They don't share a land border. No jammer is powerful enough to jam a radar across an ocean. The jammer will have to be placed in a ship and will give away the location once it starts operating.

Unless they were actively planning on launching an attack (or anticipating an imminent "hot war"), there was no real reason to do so. In reality, given how destructive such a war would be, both sides had a strong incentive to avoid outright war with each other.

Another answer (correctly, in my opinion) pointed out the very real possibility that such an action would cause the other side to assume that there was an ongoing (or imminent) attack, so this would risk the other side retaliating by launching missiles. Even if the other side didn't retaliate with missiles, they would almost certainly retaliate in some other way. At a minimum, they'd probably try to do the same thing to the other side, which would in turn leave them equally vulnerable to an attack (possibly even by some hostile third party who might seize the opportunity to frame the other superpower for the attack).

By way of example, think about the Cuban Missile Crisis: what a lot of people forget about that is that placing the missiles there was in retaliation for the U.S. putting missiles in Turkey.

The point being, something that would result in a minor theoretical advantage in a hot war that neither side really wanted anyway would almost certainly result in concrete retaliation (if not outright war).

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