Silence on the battlefield is beautiful if it means an end or lull in direct combat. It’s also disaster if it means an inability to contact or communicate with friendly forces.
The U.S. Air Force has used the EC-130H Compass Call to wield that power of silence to assist in the demise of the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.
“If we can shut down or deny their communication, then we are causing chaos that doesn’t allow them to organize or coordinate on the battlefield,” 43rd Expeditionary Electronic Combat Squadron commander Lt. Col. Chris Weaton said. “It allows supporting (coalition) troops on the ground to use that in order to organize and act against (ISIS) in a way that takes advantage of their confusion.”
The EC-130H is a heavily modified C-130 Hercules used for electronic warfare/electronic attack. From the outside, the aircraft looks identical to any other Hercules airframe. But on the inside, the immense space used for cargo is instead filled with a number of large computer systems. These systems allow the mission crew to identify an enemy’s communication — they can find anything on the electromagnetic spectrum — and jam those targets.
With only 14 Compass Calls across the entire Air Force, the U.S. military must use other aircraft to assist in electronic warfare/attack. EA-6B Prowlers and EA-18G Growlers are among aircraft used to black out ISIS. These planes, along with the F-16CJ form the Suppression of Enemy Air Defense Triad.
But those aircraft, which sometimes work in tandem with the EC-130H, don’t have the same natural capability as the Compass Call, Weaton said.
“The crew specialty that we have provides an organic capability to both identify what the threats are and then also target those threats,” he said. “And other types of platforms don’t necessarily have that dual capability built within them.”
There are about a dozen crew members on any given mission, said the 43rd Squadron’s director of operations, Capt. Joshua, who could not be fully identified for security reasons.
That crew would typically consist of the flight crew, at least one electronic warfare officer, a linguist and other personnel, he said. The linguist is vital for validating target communications.
“Ultimately, we are making sure we are targeting the correct communications and targeting the right communications at the right time,” he said.
Other airframes, such as the Growlers and Prowlers have significantly less space for additional personnel, such as linguists, Weaton said. This allows more flexibility for different missions.
But the aircraft do have some issues. The aging airframe — the Compass Call first became operational 1983 — must be continuously upgraded and adapted to deal with quickly changing technology.
The 43rd Squadron’s primary adversary, the Islamic State, has proved adept at utilizing innovative technologies in the conflict. Currently, the militant group has been effectively using commercial drones to drop grenades on coalition forces.
“That is a big challenge anytime they develop new capability and new technology, they use that and then we have to come up with a way to counter that,” Weaton said.
The squadron couldn’t discuss any of its specific capabilities, including whether or not it can target drones, but reiterated that they can try and jam anything on the electromagnetic spectrum.
The aircraft’s capability allows crewmembers to see the direct effect they are having on the environment, Weaton said. They can tell when they are causing chaos and confusion and relay that to ground forces to assist coalition partners fighting ISIS.
“Fog and friction of war becomes very apparent,” he said. “And that’s what we try to instill in the fight so that our forces don’t have to deal with that but the enemy does.”