EC-130H. U.S. Air Force photo

U.S. Air Force Planes Jam Signals, Back Up Iraqi Offensives

EC-130Hs stay busy


On Dec. 28, 2015, Iraqi forces raised the national flag over government offices in Ramadi for the first time in months. The Islamic State had held the largest city in the strategic Anbar province for more than six months.

As Baghdad’s forces pushed through, fast-flying U.S. Air Force B-1 bombers — and other strike aircraft — pounded the entrenched militants from the air. It’s no secret that the Washington-led aerial armada was key to retaking the city.

“I would agree with that Iraqi officer who said that 80 percent of the effort in Ramadi was due to coalition air strikes,” U.S. Army Col. Steve Warren, the top spokesman for the American task force in the region, told reporters on Dec. 29. “I think that is a fair assessment.”

“We don’t kind of keep those numbers,” Warren quickly added.

But while the troops on the ground and the jets battled Islamic State directly, specialized American jamming planes circled overhead. Based on the four engine C-130 transport aircraft, the EC-130H Compass Call wreaked havoc on the Islamic State’s communications.

The 386th Air Expeditionary Wing’s public affairs office confirmed the aircraft had supported the Ramadi operation in an email to War Is Boring. Situated at Kuwait’s Ali Al Salem Air Base, the 386th oversees the jammers’ operations in neighboring Iraq. Specifically, the EC-130H hampered Islamic State commanders who tried to organize counter attackers.

Above and below - U.S. Air Force EC-130H Compass Calls. At top - an EC-130H refuels during a mission against Islamic State. Air Force photos
EC-130H. U.S. Air Force photo

The Air Force got its first Compass Calls in 1982 and had them fully combat ready the next year. While their exact capabilities are classified, the aircraft’s powerful gear can block radars, scramble radio transmissions and block cell phone signals.

These missions might have involved more than just preventing militants from chatting with each other, too. Since the Islamic State routinely uses cell phones as detonators, the planes can protect troops against improvised explosive devices.

Over the years, the flying branch has continually upgraded the EC-130Hs. Defense contractors BAE Systems and L-3 Communications have replaced older analog systems with new digital gear and given crews the ability to fine tune their equipment to deal with various different threats, according to the official fact sheet.

When they first arrived, the flying branch may have envisioned the planes clearing the way for air strikes on a conventional enemy. By disrupting communications, the aircraft could have thrown a wrench — albeit a small one — into a Soviet invasion of Western Europe.

During the Gulf War, Compass Call crews helped neuter Saddam Hussein’s air defenses. When American troops flooded into Iraq again in 2003, the EC-130Hs were back in action.

When the last Compass Call left Iraq in August 2010, crews had logged more than 20,000 hours during the previous six and a half years. In addition to jamming insurgent signals, the Air Force credited the planes with stopping at least 100 roadside bombs from exploding.

And the EC-130Hs have been taking on the Taliban and other militants in Afghanistan for more than a decade. Crews have flown more than 40,000 hours during nearly 7,000 individual missions over the restive central Asian nation.

Since their introduction, the Compass Calls have flown missions over Kosovo, Haiti, Panama, Libya and Serbia. According to the 386th’s public affairs office, the jammers have been back over Iraqi skies since March 2015.

EC-130H. U.S. Air Force photo

But despite the obvious benefits of the aircraft and the recent contributions in the battle for Ramadi, the Air Force has been trying to get rid of at least some of the planes to free up funds for other projects. As part of the Pentagon’s annual budget request in February 2015, the flying branch proposed cutting seven of the electronic attackers — half of the total number in service — to free up some $300 million over the next four years.

This paltry amount was less than half of what the Air Force will likely pay for each of its new, secretive Long Range Strike Bombers. By the most conservative estimates, the money would be enough for just two of the service’s upcoming and troublesome F-35A Joint Strike Fighters.

With the U.S. Navy’s retirement of the EA-6B Prowler and Marine Corps plans to do the same, any such decision for Compass Call would severely limit the number of jammers available to American commanders in the field. Besides the Compass Calls and the aging Prowlers, the smaller and less powerful EA-18G Growler — derived from the F/A-18 Hornet fighter jet — is the Pentagon’s only other dedicated electronic attacker.

Given these issues, it’s no surprise legislators balked at the idea. In their final version of the defense budget seven months later, lawmakers included specific language preventing the Air Force from making any changes to the EC-130H fleet.

American troops in Afghanistan, and Washington’s allies in Iraq, are no doubt happy with these protections. With Baghdad’s troops still cleaning out Ramadi, the planes could easily still be keeping watch over the city.

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