Despite its age, the BBC is embracing short-wave radio as it remains an enduring tool in the global fight against disinformation surrounding the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“The heroism and grit of our warriors leave no doubt that Ukraine will prevail,” said the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, in a stirring speech broadcast on his government’s YouTube channel. Ukraine is fighting two battles – one against a physical army and another against disinformation. One weapon in its arsenal that is helping it do both may be surprising: short-wave radio.
This legacy technology is an old version of AM analogue radio that operates on low-frequency radio waves. It is used to transmit audio signals over long distances by bouncing them off layers of charged particles in the Earth’s ionosphere, which is part of the upper atmosphere between 80 and 600km above sea level.
Used by spies in the Cold War, short-wave radio is less complicated than newer communications options. It is still used in remote parts of the world where local broadcasting is not accessible, as well as in occupied and war-torn countries such as Ukraine. In these places, short-wave radio stations can provide a low-cost and effective lifeline to cut-off communities.
The BBC uses short-wave radio to deliver content to a number of territories for reasons of media regulation, geography or unrest, or where users do not have the luxury of using other platforms. A tweet from BBC World Service in early March revealed it is using short-wave transmissions to Ukraine and parts of Russia to broadcast updates about the unfolding Russian invasion.
The news is broadcast for four hours a day on two new short-wave frequencies and is also available via the BBC World News website, although it has been reported that these are blocked in Russia.
While using early 20th-century radio technology may seem unusual in our modern world where mobile phones and internet-connected devices are ubiquitous, it is not surprising, according to Greig Paul, lead mobile networks and security engineer at the University of Strathclyde.
“When you’re in an environment where infrastructure has been damaged, where transmission towers have been destroyed or where the power supply to the transmission equipment isn’t reliable and robust, such as some parts of Ukraine, then you end up with a fallback to older equipment, such as battery-powered radios,” Paul says.
Not only are radio receivers widely available, in many cars for example, but they can be made from electrical bits and bobs. Portable radios can run on batteries for days and, unlike mobile phones, do not require infrastructure such as radio masts, which are often targeted and lose power, making the networks users rely on, and their source of news, unavailable.
Short-wave radio signals are also harder to jam than the higher frequencies travelling shorter distances that are used by mobile networks, for example. While mobile networks can be disabled using handheld jamming devices, blocking short-wave radio signals necessitates the use of more powerful jammers that are more akin to high-powered transmitters, Paul explains.
Radio’s great strength lies in its use of lower transmission frequencies than other technologies. Audio can be transmitted much further than TV broadcasts, thousands of kilometres across remote and war-torn areas, for example. This means the BBC can broadcast safely from outside Ukraine, without needing local infrastructure. “Since lower radio frequencies are used, the signals propagate better through buildings and basements, even when transmitted from far away, which might be useful for people who are taking shelter,” Paul says.
This old-school method of broadcasting will no doubt be providing a lifeline to some people and keeping others informed where information is unreliable, but it is part of a wider communications strategy. “I think these days, most people rely on the internet for news. I suspect a lot of people will use an app to listen to audio news,” he adds.
Paul is right. The audience for the BBC’s Ukrainian language site more than doubled year-to-date, with a reach of 3.9 million for the second week in March, while the audience for bbc.com increased 154 per cent in Ukraine. Interestingly, the BBC said its numbers represent direct traffic to BBC websites, so its reach is probably much higher once social media audiences are factored in. The BBC also provides digital content via the BBC News Ukraine website bbc.ua, its YouTube channel and social media platforms Telegram and Viber, plus the BBC News Ukraine Monday to Friday TV news programme rebroadcast by Espreso TV in Ukraine. Similar options are available in Russia.
“It’s often said truth is the first casualty of war,” says Tim Davie, BBC director-general. “In a conflict where disinformation and propaganda are rife, there is a clear need for factual and independent news people can trust – and in a significant development, millions more Russians are turning to the BBC.”
The BBC’s Russian language news website more than tripled its year-to-date weekly average, with a record reach of 10.7 million people in the second week of March. The broadcaster said the live page in Russian covering the invasion was the most visited site across the whole of the BBC World Service’s non-English language services, with 5.3 million views. Davie says: “We will continue giving the Russian people access to the truth, however we can.”
To allay users’ fears about accessing its news services, the BBC has provided advice on how to use circumvention tools such as the Psiphon app to access its news, in English, Russian and Ukrainian. The Tor Browser also has a dedicated BBC site.
As well as being used to wage war against disinformation, short-wave radio is reportedly also being used by the Ukrainian army. University of Strathclyde’s Paul believes that good communication on the battlefield requires a diversity of equipment to build resilience. “Different technologies solve different problems. Confidentiality would certainly be important if you wanted to discuss the details of your plans or to give instructions or to coordinate activities. Availability is really important too.” Electronic warfare could be used to jam or disrupt mobile networks or radio communications, so Paul says it is advantageous to have a number of technologies to choose from. “This introduces resilience.”
He believes it still makes sense to use traditional communications methods, like field telephones, for example, as they are low-powered or even self-powered and offer a route of communications that’s not dependent on radios or mobile phones, and likewise short-wave radio, which is harder to jam than mobile networks, for example.
But sometimes there are advantages to using newer technology, if an internet connection is available, such as encrypted apps like Telegram and Signal. It’s been reported that collectively the two apps saw 1.7 million installs between February and March, up 197 per cent from numbers in January when Russia had yet to invade. They are being used by the military and fearful civilians alike.
Forbes Magazine reported that Ukraine is also using facial-recognition technology to identify dead Russian soldiers and find them on social media so their families can be contacted. The aim is to dispel Russian misinformation that the invasion is a special operation that has sustained few losses.
Rather than whether one technology is better than another, or high-tech tools are superior to antiquated ones, what is important is having a range of resilient alternatives to keep people connected, Paul explains.
As necessity is the mother of innovation, we will no doubt see more clever uses of old and new technologies alike, as the conflict rumbles on.
A cocktail of weaponry
Can you defeat a larger army with lower-tech weapons?
The US is among nations sending the latest weaponry to Ukraine, including the long-range Himars rocket launcher system and Nlaw weapons, designed to destroy tanks with just one shot. But as with its communications systems, Ukraine is using a mixture of basic and high-tech weaponry, and its (relatively) old-fashioned hacks have proved devastatingly effective… at least at first.
Both sides are using drones to bomb targets. Ukraine is using small commercial UAVs to track enemy movements and for direct attacks, and larger Bayraktar TB2 drones to destroy ammunition dumps, armoured convoys and rocket launch systems. The Turkish-made UAVs reportedly helped sink the Moskva warship. They are slower and cheaper than some military alternatives, but reliable and able to stay airborne for more than 24 hours. It is said that fighter jets find it hard to lock onto the slow-flying TB2s, and in the early days of the invasion, it seemed as if they were almost unstoppable. However, there are reports that that their advantages are waning as the Russian military finds new tactics to stop them.
Ukraine and Russia have both used basic projectiles alongside expensive guided missile systems too. Unverified footage shared via Telegram and Twitter appears to show a grenade adapted into a ‘fish bait bomb’ being dropped from a Ukrainian commercial drone directly into the open hatch of a Russian T-62 tank. (This Soviet-era tank, produced from 1961 to 1975, is one piece of old kit that is not proving so useful.)
Just as with communications systems, the age of technology is just a number, and a range of weaponry is needed on the battlefield to ensure resilience. “No weapon is a silver bullet,” says General Mark Milley, US chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “No singular weapon system … turns the balance.” But soldiers would be foolish to think old weapons cannot inflict a lot of damage.
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