Electronic Weapons: Listening in on the Enemy


November 18, 2023: The U.S. Air Force recently received the first of ten to fourteen EC-37B Compass Call electronic warfare aircraft. These are Gulfstream 550 business jets modified for military use. These are replacing fourteen older EC-130H aircraft. The older electronic warfare aircraft entered service in 1982 and proved invaluable when used from 2003 to 2014 in Iraq and Afghanistan. The electronic warfare capabilities range from jamming wireless communication on the ground or listening in and, using onboard and on the ground translators, alerting troops about what enemy troops and commanders are talking about. The EC-37B can also jam ground-based radars and a wide range of enemy electronic systems. EC-37B can do everything the older EC-130H could and do it faster and over greater distances. EC-37B has additional capabilities that troops supported by the EC-130H had asked for. Some of the EC-130H aircraft are still in service and comparisons with the new EC-37B will be easy to make. Nothing like some competition to get the most out of both systems.

In Iraq, where most foreign troops left in 2011, fighting continues. Now the enemy is ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) and the Iraqis asked the Americans to at least send in some EC-130H aircraft so the Iraqi commanders would be aware of what the ISIL men were talking about. The Iraqis were doing the fighting but appreciated the limited Americans presence. There were only about 2,000 American troops still in Iraq and they were there as trainers not fighters.

By the end of 2015 Iraq declared Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, which is most of western Iraq, back under government control. This was big news and reporters speaking to Iraqi commanders were told that two types of American support were critical for making the operation a success and keeping Iraqi casualties down. Reporters were not surprised to hear that Iraqi officers were glad to see the return of American air support, and in a big way. Many of these battalion and brigade commanders had started their careers after 2003 when American air support was common and greatly missed it after Iraqi politicians refused to let the American continue providing it after 2011. But to the surprise of the foreign journalists, Iraqi commanders praised the return of American electronic warfare aircraft, especially those with the ability to selectively listen in on enemy wireless communications and, if needed, quickly jam it. With this capability Iraqi intel officers and commanders could listen to the enemy communications in real-time and at any point ask for it to be jammed. This made the enemy vulnerable because the army was listening in no matter what wireless communications was used and could quickly jam it if that seemed more advantageous for the army.

What was remarkable about this support was that there were only a few American aircraft in the air at any one time. For smart bomb delivery one B-1 bomber and one or two fighter-bombers could handle all requests from ground troops around Ramadi. For the eavesdropping and jamming a single EC-130H Compass Call electronic warfare aircraft got it done. That’s just as well because there were only 14 EC-130H aircraft in service.

These aircraft, introduced in the early 1980s, were originally designed to jam Soviet anti-aircraft defenses but they proved to be crucial in Afghanistan and Iraq. Since 2002 these 14 aircraft have flown nearly 7,000 sorties and spent over 40,000 hours in the air. What made the EC-130H so useful was its ability to eavesdrop on cell phone and other radio communications and then selectively jam them. The EC-130H has space on board for linguists, who can listen to the radio traffic below, and decide who to just record and perhaps immediately report to U.S. troops below, and who to jam. This information can also be shared with people on the ground. Because Afghanistan has limited land-line phone systems, especially in the countryside, the Taliban and everyone else relied on cell phones, walkie-talkies and ham radio type gear to communicate. The EC-130H could detect all of these and jam them selectively. ISIL has similar preferences in communications gear and in the midst of combat they have found, like the Taliban, there is no solution to the problems created by an EC-130H overhead.

Another advantage is that while most Islamic terror organizations know of these aircraft, they never know when they are operating nearby unless there is obviously selective jamming going on. This forces the enemy to either use their cell phones and radios sparingly or use code words which the U.S. can usually decipher or jam, or not use electronic communication at all. The latter choice makes it more difficult to control your forces in a rapidly changing battle.

The U.S. began using EC-130Hs frequently over Afghanistan in 2006. There they flew 300-400 sorties a year, each 6-8 hours long and they were considered a valuable tool by ground commanders. But only the most crucial ground operations got EC-130H support. The use of these aircraft has increased greatly but gradually as tactics and techniques for their most efficient use were developed. The U.S. Army also has some twin-engine electronic eavesdropping aircraft, but these are not as well equipped as the air force EC-130Hs. Nevertheless, the army sent as many as possible to Afghanistan and Iraq and bought more.

The EC-37B is based on a twin-engine business jet and is more reliable than the remaining EC-130Hs which are based on the four-turboprop engine C-130. Because of that the EC-37B is faster and can stay in the air longer. As in Iraq, one or two EC-37Bs can provide a lot of useful support for an ally without sending in a lot of American troops. The other threat in Iraq are Iran-backed local militias that work for Iran, not Iraq. The Iraqis would like to know what these militias are talking about and what Iran is telling them to do. The American EC-130H and EC-37B aircraft can keep the Iraqis updated on what their aggressive neighbor is up to. The Iranians do not appreciate this but have not yet attacked the Americans' electronic surveillance aircraft. American aircraft and troops in Iraq are based at the Iraqi Al Asad Airbase.

As soon as the EC-37B has proved itself over Iraq and Syria, some will be sent to Ukraine and used against Russian forces. This is riskier for the EC-37B because the Russian aggressively go after threats, and the EC-37B is very much a threat to Russian forces in Ukraine. The Ukrainians have a lot of anti-aircraft systems available as well as some Russian designed fighters. Americans F-16s are on the way but may not arrive before the EC-37B does.




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