By the end of 2015 Iraq declared Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province (which is most of western Iraq) back under government control. Reporters speaking to Iraqi commanders found two types of American support praised as 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 foreign journalists Iraqi commanders are 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 it could be supplied 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 are 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, relies on cell phones, walkie-talkies and ham radio type gear to communicate. The EC-130H can 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 a EC-130H overhead.
Another advantage is that while most Islamic terror organizations know of these aircraft they never know when there 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 just 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 two 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.
In yet another dispute with the ground forces the air forces now proposes to retire half the EC-130H fleet in order to provide more money for F-35s and the new heavy bomber.