Electronic Weapons: The Ear In The Sky

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July 15, 2009: The U.S. Air Force EC-130H Compass Call electronic warfare aircraft, originally designed to jam Soviet anti-aircraft defenses, has proved to be a crucial weapon in Afghanistan. That's because the EC-130H is also equipped to eavesdrop on cell phone and other radio communications, and 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. 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. 

The Taliban know of these aircraft, but never know when there are operating near them. This forces the Taliban 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 for the Taliban to operate against Afghan and NATO forces.

The U.S. has only 14 EC-130H aircraft, and they spend most of their time over Afghanistan. In the last three years, these aircraft have flown 1,300 sorties (300-400 a year, each 6-8 hours long), and they are considered a valuable tool by ground commanders. But only the most crucial ground operations get EC-130H support. The use of these aircraft has increased greatly in the last three years. For the first five years of the Afghan campaign, the EC-130Hs flew only 700 sorties (140 a year). 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, but the army is sending more of them to Afghanistan.

 


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