How cell phones can get you killed on the modern battlefield

A member of a police unit of FPV pilots looks at a smartphone in the Zaporizhia region, southeastern Ukraine.
Dmytro Smolienko / Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images

  • A US military officer said military trainers had warned soldiers about the dangers of using cellphones.
  • “The cell phone is the new cigarette in the foxhole,” he told Foreign Policy.
  • Ukraine has used Russian soldiers’ mobile data to locate and target their positions.

Cell phones have revolutionized the way war is documented. They provide snapshots of life on the front lines, glimpses of the latest military equipment and harrowing images of death and destruction.

But they are also potentially deadly for the soldiers who wear them, a US military officer said.

Major General Curtis Taylor told Jack Detsch, a reporter at Foreign Policy, that Army trainers had warned soldiers about the dangers of carrying cellphones on operations.

“We’ve shown soldiers, ‘Hey, your cell phone can get you killed,’” said Taylor, the commanding general of the National Training Center and Fort Irwin.

He pointed to one training incident when he said he and his team were able to locate an otherwise undetectable Apache stealth helicopter as it was working its way through their air defenses because the pilot’s phone was moving at 120 miles per hour.

Taylor compared the dangers of cell phones to those of smoking cigarettes during World War II, when the spark of a match or the glow of a cigarette could help snipers distinguish enemy targets.

“The cell phone is the new cigarette in the foxhole,” Taylor said.

Ukraine has targeted Russian mobile data

A Ukrainian soldier on his mobile phone on the front line in southern Ukraine, October 2022.
Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty Images

The war between Russia and Ukraine was characterized by the use of mobile data to target enemy positions.

A January report from cybersecurity firm Enea drew attention to the Ukrainian attack on a Russian barracks in the eastern Ukraine city of Makiivka on New Year’s Eve 2022.

The Russian Defense Ministry said the attack took place after Russian reservists turned on their mobile phones, allowing Ukrainian intelligence agents to identify their location.

The area was subsequently targeted by an M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS). Russian sources claim that 89 soldiers were killed in the attacks, while Ukraine puts the number at around 400.

In a statement after the incident, the Russian Ministry of Defense said: “It is already clear that the main reason for what happened was the switching on and massive use – in violation of the ban – by personnel of mobile phones in a range of enemy areas . weapons.”

“This factor allowed the enemy to locate and determine the coordinates of the location of the military personnel who would launch a missile attack,” it added.

However, Russia is likely using similar tactics to its advantage.

It is known to use the Leer-3 electronic warfare system, which is capable of identifying 2,000 phones within a 6-mile radius, potentially exposing Ukrainian locations, Sky News previously reported.

Electronic warfare uses the electromagnetic spectrum, including signals such as radio, infrared or radar, to disrupt and degrade an enemy’s ability to use those signals, according to defense manufacturer Lockheed Martin.

It has played a crucial role in the conflict so far because of its potential for identifying targets and countering drone attacks.

While the dangers of using a cell phone on the battlefield seem plentiful, the Enea report says, “A mobile device – despite its risks – has utility as a backup communications system; a means of documenting enemy movements, creating after-action reports, or providing other intelligence. and as a propaganda/content generation system.”