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Did smartphones get dozens of Russian soldiers killed? Armies around the world are struggling to keep troops off their phones.

The Ukrainian attack against a Russian barracks may be the deadliest example of why soldiers shouldn’t use smartphones.

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.

Have phone, will travel

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.

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

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.

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.

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.’”

Phone war

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.”

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