Electronic Weapons: Another F-35 Victim Fights Back

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February 14, 2016: The U.S. Air Force has decided to replace its 14 overworked and aging EC-130H Compass Call electronic warfare aircraft by doing what many other nations are doing; putting the sensors and electronic into a smaller business type jet. The air force is considering a similar solution for its JSTARS radar ground surveillance aircraft. Britain has already shown the way with their new ASTOR, which has the capabilities of the U.S. JSTARS but uses a 44 ton Bombadier Global Express twin engine business jet instead of the 152 ton four-engine B-707 used for JSTARS. Other nations are using business jets for AWACS and other airborne missions involving electronics. One reason for this is that sensors and electronics have gotten lighter and more compact. Moreover better satellite communications makes it possible to reduce aircraft crew size by having most of the equipment operators on the ground. The air force is asking firms that have already done these business jet solutions to submit bids for doing it to the EC-130H.

The increased efforts to destroy ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) have led to the EC-130H being much in demand and wearing out faster than anticipated. What makes the EC-130H especially useful is its ability to selectively listen in on enemy wireless communications and, if needed, quickly jam it. This made the enemy vulnerable because the EC-130H listens in no matter what wireless communications are used and can quickly jam it if that seemed more advantageous for the ground forces.

The EC-130H entered service in the early 1980s and were originally designed to jam Soviet anti-aircraft defenses but they proved to be crucial in Afghanistan and Iraq. Since 2002 the fourteen EC-130Hs have flown nearly 7,000 sorties and spent over 40,000 hours in the air. The EC-130H was built to carry linguists who could 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 because so few of them were available. The use of these aircraft has increased greatly since 2006 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.

Not long ago the air forces now proposed to retire half the EC-130H fleet in order to provide more money for F-35s and the new heavy bomber. Ground forces quickly came forward with a mountain of evidence about how useful the EC-130H was in fighting Islamic terrorists. Faced with that the air force is now seeking to replace the EC-130H with a smaller but similar (in capabilities) aircraft. Some orders for F-35s are being delayed and the new bomber will take longer to develop.

 


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