Tag Archives: EC-130H

The U.S. Air Force Has Deployed One Of Its EC-130H Compass Call Electronic Warfare Aircraft To South Korea

One of the few EC-130H Compass Call aircraft, capable to find and hit the enemy forces with denial of service (and possibly cyber) attacks on their communication networks, has been deployed to Osan Air Base, South Korea.

The EC-130H Compass Call is a modified Hercules tasked with various types of signals surveillance, interdiction and disruption. According to the U.S. Air Force official fact sheets: “The Compass Call system employs offensive counter-information and electronic attack (or EA) capabilities in support of U.S. and Coalition tactical air, surface, and special operations forces.”

The USAF EC-130H overall force is quite small, consisting of only 14 aircraft, based at Davis-Monthan AFB (DMAFB), in Tucson, Arizona and belonging to the 55th Electronic Combat Group (ECG) and its two squadrons: the 41st and 43rd Electronic Combat Squadrons (ECS). Also based at DMAFB and serving as the type training unit is the 42nd ECS that operates a lone TC-130H trainer along with some available EC-130Hs made available by the other front-line squadrons.

An EC-130H Compass Call travels along the taxiway at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia, June 27, 2017. Compass Call is an airborne tactical weapon system that uses noise jamming to disrupt enemy command and control communications and deny time-critical adversary coordination essential for enemy force management. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Jonathan Hehnly)

The role of the Compass Call is to disrupt the enemy’s ability to command and control their forces by finding, prioritizing and targeting the enemy communications. This means that the aircraft is able to detect the signals emitted by the enemy’s communication and control gear and jam them so that the communication is denied. The original mission of the EC-130H was SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses): the Compass Call were to jam the enemy’s IADS (Integrated Air Defense Systems) and to prevent interceptors from talking with the radar controllers on the ground (or aboard an Airborne Early Warning aircraft). Throughout the years, the role has evolved, making the aircraft a platform capable of targeting also the signals between UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) and their control stations.

According to the official data:

The EC-130H fleet is composed of a mix of Baseline 1 and 2 aircraft. The 55th ECG recently eclipsed 10,900 combat sorties and 66,500 flight hours as they provided U.S. and Coalition forces and Joint Commanders a flexible advantage across the spectrum of conflict. COMPASS CALL’s adaptability is directly attributed to its spiral upgrade acquisition strategy guided by the Big Safari Program office and Air Force Material Command’s 661st Aeronautical Systems Squadron based in Waco, Texas. Combined efforts between these agencies ensure the EC-130H can counter new, emergent communication technology.

The Block 35 Baseline 1 EC-130H provides the Air Force with additional capabilities to jam communication, Early Warning/Acquisition radar and navigation systems through higher effective radiated power, extended frequency range and insertion of digital signal processing versus earlier EC-130Hs. Baseline 1 aircraft have the flexibility to keep pace with adversary use of emerging technology. It is highly reconfigurable and permits incorporation of clip-ins with less crew impact. It promotes enhanced crew proficiency, maintenance and sustainment with a common fleet configuration, new operator interface, increased reliability and better fault detection.

Baseline 2 has a number of upgrades to ease operator workload and improve effectiveness. Clip-in capabilities are now integrated into the operating system and, utilizing automated resource management, are able to be employed seamlessly with legacy capabilities. Improved external communications allow Compass Call crews to maintain situational awareness and connectivity in dynamic operational and tactical environments.
Delivery of Baseline-2 provides the DoD with the equivalent of a “fifth generation electronic attack capability.” A majority of the improvements found in the EC-130H Compass Call Baseline-2 are classified modifications to the mission system that enhance precision and increase attack capacity. Additionally, the system was re-designed to expand the “plug-and-play” quick reaction capability aspect, which has historically allowed the program to counter unique “one-off” high profile threats. Aircraft communication capabilities are improved with expansion of satellite communications connectivity compatible with emerging DoD architectures, increased multi-asset coordination nets and upgraded data-link terminals. Furthermore, modifications to the airframe in Baseline-2 provide improved aircraft performance and survivability.

Although it’s not clear whether this ability has already been translated into an operational capability, in 2015, a USAF EC-130H Compass Call aircraft has also been involved in demos where it attacked networks from the air: a kind of in-flight hacking capability that could be particularly useful to conduct cyberwarfare missions where the Electronic Attack aircraft injects malware by air-gapping closed networks.

With about one-third of the fleet operating in support of Operation Inherent Resolve (indeed, four EC-130Hs, teaming up with the RC-135 Rivet Joint and other EA assets, are operating over Iraq and Syria to deny the Islamic State the ability to communicate), the fact that a single EC-130H (73-1590 “Axis 43”) was recently deployed from Davis Monthan AFB to Osan Air Base, South Korea, where it arrived via Yokota, on Jan. 4, 2018, it’s pretty intriguing.

Obviously, we can’t speculate about the reason behind the deployment of the Electronic Warfare with alleged Cyber-Attack capabilities (that could be particularly useful against certain threats these days….) aircraft south of the DMZ: however, the presence of such a specialized and somehow rare aircraft in the Korean peninsula, that joins several other intelligence gathering aircraft operating over South Korea amid raising tensions for quite some time, is at least worth of note.

Update: some of our sources have suggested that the aircraft was deployed to perform anti-IED (Improvised Electronic Device) tasks during the Winter Olympics, kicking off on Feb. 9, 2018 in PyeongChang County, South Korea.

U.S. Air Force EC-130H Disrupts ISIL Communications in Iraq

In an uncharacteristic media release by the U.S. Air Force, U.S. EC-130H Compass Call electronic warfare aircraft have been reported as active in support of anti-ISIL operations in Iraq.

The EC-130H Compass Call is a modified version of the versatile C-130 platform that was conceived as a transport but has been modified for missions such as search and rescue, gunship and even bomber. The EC-130H version conducts various types of signals surveillance, interdiction and disruption along with additional undisclosed capabilities that may include surveillance and jamming of cellular and other wireless signals.

In an official release published on the U.S. Air Force official website, Lt. Col. Josh Koslov, squadron commander of the 43rd Expeditionary Electronic Attack Squadron, is quoted as saying, “When the Compass Call is up on station supporting our Iraqi allies we are denying ISIL’s ability to command and control their forces.” Koslov emphasized, “If you can’t talk, you can’t fight.”

Published specifications for the EC-130H say the aircraft employs a 13-14 person crew. In the release published by the U.S. Air Force there is mention of linguists on board to “Help us efficiently find, prioritize and target ISIL.” Sources are also quoted as saying onboard linguists “help the electronic warfare officer make jamming decisions in order to provide the effects desired by the ground force commander.”

ISIL insurgent forces rely heavily on cell phones for communication, including the command detonation of improvised explosive devices. According to an article published in January by Fightersweep.com, “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.”

Since the EC-130H’s role in combating Daesh through signals intelligence and interdiction is largely non-attributable and non-lethal area commanders can use it with impunity. There is no risk of collateral damage as with bombs and missiles that directly destroy targets.

In October, a top-ranking U.S. Air Force official announced that a small enemy drone controlled by ISIS had been downed by an Electronic Attack aircraft asset: although no specific type was mentioned, few USAF platforms other than the Compass Call are known to have the ability to use Electronic Warfare to disrupt the signal between the UAV and its control station.

The EC-130H’s numbers were briefly threatened prior to 2016 according to a report in the Arizona Daily Independent, a newspaper published near the EC-130H’s home base at Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson, Arizona. The report cited “a proposal to retire seven EC-130H Compass Call electronic attack fleet airplanes stationed at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson.” According to the ADI news report, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016 prevented the retirement of these aircraft citing the critical importance of their mission to “protect our air men and women from sophisticated electronic attacks in conflicts across the Middle East such as Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan as well as against potential threats in the Pacific and Europe.”

Few specifics of the EC-130H’s mission are available publicly. It is probable the EC-130H operates partially in support of classified U.S. special operations teams in the region, and that these teams accompany Iraqi forces in the anti-ISIL campaign. These teams’ additional roles likely include targeting for U.S. and coalition airstrikes.

The EC-130H is probably teaming up with the RC-135 Rivet Joint and other EA assets operating over Iraq and Syria to deny the Islamic State the ability to communicate.

The release of information about EC-130H operations by the Air Force, however vague it may be, is significant since the EC-130 overall force is so small, consisting of only 14 aircraft according to the Air Force. Additionally, because of its classified mission and capabilities, little is seen in the media about the EC-130H role, making this information release about the aircraft noteworthy.

 

Salva

Salva

Why NATO, French and US AWACS have been constantly monitoring the Libyan airspace well before the No-Fly Zone was voted

In the last few days I have often had the opportunity to talk with journalists, spotters and enthusiasts about the Libyan uprising that was also the subject of an interview I gave to Pieter Johnson for the Across The Pond segment of the Episode 139 of Airplane Geeks (click here to listen to the podcast).

Among the most debated topics there was the AWACS presence at the southern borders of the Malta FIR: NATO, French, British and US E-3 AWACS constantly monitoring the Libyan airspace. The presence of such a large deployment of AEW (Airborne Early Warning) platforms in the area and the fact that at least one E-3 (usually 2) has been flying day and night to ensure the surveillance of the airspace on a H24 basis raised some questions, the most of common of which was: “why are there so many AWACS up if no No-Fly Zone has been enforced yet (hence no fighter has to be controlled)?”

The answer is more or less the same I gave in a previous post titled “Why Libyan Air Force aircraft pose a risk to Italy“: in these days there are many SIGINT aircraft operating at the border between the Maltese and Libyan airspace to assess the inventory of both the LARAF (Libyan Arab Republic Air Force) and of the recently born rebel’s FLAF (Free Libya Air Force). US EC-130Hs Compass Call and EC-130J Commando Solo, EP-3s, RC-135 Rivet Joint, C-160G, British Nimrods R1 (whose operative life was extended as a consequence of the Libyan crisis) that have been eavesdropping into Libyan Communications and Signals to have an in-depth understanding of the situation in Libya, to know where forces are located and to build up the an Electronic Order of Battle as well as a priority target list.

Most of these information gathering platforms are turboprop that could not easily escape to fast jets sent to intercept them. Even if it is extremely unlikely, the possibility of a LARAF or FLAF (Free Libya Air Force) fighter, either intentionally or in the act defecting, getting dangerously close to one of these aircraft, in such a hot and fast changing scenario, can’t be completely ruled out. That’s why so many flyng hours were already spent by AWACS to monitor the Libyan airspace even if a NFZ was not established yet.

On Mar. 17, Gaddafi said that any foreign military intervention in Libya will expose all air and maritime traffic in the Mediterranean Sea to danger and civilian and military (facilities) will become targets of Libya’s counter-attack in the short-term and also in the long-term.

I think that the risk of LARAF fighters harassing both military traffic (evacuating nationals from Libya or monitoring the situation) and civil airlines crossing the Tripoli FIR or connecting the Libyan airports with the rest of the world, was what was scaring NATO, France and EU when they decided, well before the NFZ was voted, to keep a constant watch on Libyan airspace.

Libyan airspace most interesting movements of last week

At least two Internet resources have been providing a comprehensive set of tools to monitor on a 24 hours basis the traffic that has been operating in the airspaces between Malta and Tripoli FIR: Flightradar24 and LiveATC.net. The first gives you a sort of “radar picture” built thanks to the ADS-B messages broadcasted by the planes while the latter provides live air traffic control (ATC) broadcasts from air traffic control towers and radar facilities around the world and also from Malta. Information gathered by means of this two freely available resources are then spread by aircraft enthusiasts (and not only) using Twitter with the result that as soon as a particular aircraft appear above the Mediterranean sea, something strange happen or a particular communication is heard, almost instantly, the news reaches every place of the world. As an expert in military aviation I’ve been closely watching this “information flow” and, as I was often asked by Twitter followers, blog readers and journalists which was the most unexpect or unusual traffic that was heard or seen operating in the airspaces to the south of Malta, I think that it may be useful to summarize here some of the most interesting stuff that was monitored in the last week even if it has already been published on Twitter and on other online magazines and media which created Live Blogs (like Malta Today) or built up Twitter Live pages (like La Repubblica.it in Italy) by importing through the Twitter APIs those tweets containing a particular hashtag (i.e. #Libya or #Tripoli). In fact, those media don’t always give an explaination of the reasons why a traffic is interesting.
Anyway, don’t miss the chance to follow user FMCNL on Twitter if you want to be updated on latest movements.

Mar. 5, 2011

Before 09.30Z French Air Force Transall C-160G tail F216, call sign COTAM 2096
09.30Z a NATO AWACS controlling the Libyan airspace for any suspect activity using the front end callsign “NATO 07″ requested to Malta ACC if it had “any information on aircraft with squawk 2017, position about 85 miles east of our”. The answer from Malta was that “it should be a Falcon 900, at FL340, with destination Mitiga, according to Flight Plan”. A few minutes later, the Libyan Government 5A-DCN contacted Malta ACC on its way from Amman to Mitiga. The news was reported by all media that speculated of a “Libyan aircraft challenging a NATO AWACS”. Read here what was really weird in that episode….
14:35Z RA 519 EP 3 from Moron in contact with Malta
17:21Z Lion 491 US C-130 involved in the Tunis airlift with Malta
21:30Z SUM 9071 Russian Ministry for Emergency Situations Il-76TD RA-76429 showing on flightradar to Tunis FIR
23:46Z Apex 17 RAF Nimrod R1 returning to Akrotiri handed over to Athinai Cntrl. This kind of aircraft due to have been retired at the end of March are now to be kept in service for at least another three months, as it was reported by the BBC, most probably due to the need to use this strategic platform during the Libyan crisis.

Mar. 8, 2011

23.30Z AXIS 10 US EC-130H Compass Call with Malta ACC. The EC-130H performs electronic/information warfare tasks.

Mar. 9, 2011

Around 00:00z USAF EC-130J of the 193d Special Operations Wing (193 SOW) of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard using c/s RCH1024 was monitored using Mode-S most probably deploying to Souda Bay. The Commando Solo is a particular version of the EC-130 that is used for psychological operations (PSYOP) and is capable of broadcasting TV and radio on all bands. Last version should be able to provide WiFi access by dropping Access Points to the ground (has to be confirmed).
Around 00:20Z Malta ACC warned Air Malta 7489 that a previous flight reported an unknown traffic W of Gozo that didn’t show up on radar.
Beginning around 08:30Z three Libyan Government aircraft departed Tripoli for various destinations:

  • 5A-UAC Bombardier BD-700 went to Lisbon Purtugal (via Luqa Malta)
  • 5A-UAA Bombardier BD-100 Challenger 300 went to Paris Le Bourget Airport
  • 5A-DCN the Falcon DA-900 went to Cairo

Mar. 10, 2011

10:10Z Afriqiyah Airways Airbus A330 5A-ONF out of Tripoli east bound as AAW430 appeared shortly on FL390
13:45Z 5A-ONH AAW220 east bound from Tripoli. It was returning to Libya as AAW241 at 19:28Z
17:13Z USAF RC-135W Rivet Joint c/s OLIVE 24 in Maltese airspace
20:45Z Unusual comm heard on LiveATC. NATO 02 to Malta ACC: “we have a traffic behind us 9 miles. Can you confirm the level?”. Malta: “FL340”

Mar. 11, 2011

04:40Z Hellenic Air Force C-130 tail 743 flying as HAF356T arrived in Athens after departure from Tripoli with released crew of Dutch Navy helicopter NRN277 from frigate Tromp captured by the Army of Gaddafi on Feb. 27.

What's weird in the Libyan Government Da.900 "challenging" the NATO AWACS episode

Since the beginning of the Libyan crisis, a certain number of SIGINT, Electronic Warfare and information gathering assets were reported to be operating within the Malta FIR or on its southern border, next to the Libyan airspace. Radio communications broadcasted on the Internet by LiveATC unveiled the presence of RAF and NATO E-3 AWACS, British Nimrod R.1, French C-160G and several US planes, as RC-135W, Special Ops MC-130Ps and EC-130Hs along with supporting tankers. Indeed, operating within controlled airspace, these aircraft have to contact Malta ACC to coordinate refueling areas, orbit positions, flight levels and to receive information for the deconfliction from other traffic during transit through the Maltese airspace. Even if the Libyan Arab Republic Air Force (LARAF) never dared to attempt to harm such planes, the AWACS have been operating on a 24 hours a day basis to provide AEW (Airborne Early Warning) in favour of both these planes and those involved in the evacuation of nationals from Libya performing difficult rescues in the areas taken by rebels. Around 09.30Z of Mar. 5, 2011, a NATO AWACS controlling the Libyan airspace for any suspect activity became the protagonist of an episode that involved one of the private jets of the Gaddafi’s fleet flying from Amman to Mitiga. The E-3 using the front end callsign “NATO 07” requested to Malta ACC if it had “any information on aircraft with squawk 2017, position about 85 miles east of our”. The answer from Malta was that “it should be a Falcon 900, at FL340, with destination Mitiga, according to Flight Plan”. A few minutes later the “suspicious” plane contacted Malta radar too with callsign “5A-DCN” (= registration of the aircraft) and flew normally to its destination. Since this conversation (that can be heard here) was broadcasted in real time by LiveATC many aircraft enthusiasts heard it live on the Internet meaning that the news of this weird episode spread really quickly, especially thanks to Twitter. Many media, inspired by a “provoking” tweet by the expert user who recorded the radio comms and made it available on Audioboo, without checking what actually had happened, claimed that the Libyan aircraft had somehow “challenged” the NATO AWACS. However what’s really noteworthy in this episode is not that the Falcon 900EX of the Libyan Government was flying undisturbed but that the AWACS was asking an ACC if it had details about a track it was controlling: usually, the AWACS is interconnected with the radar stations of the NADGE (Nato Air Defence Ground Environment) by means of Interim JTIDS Message Specification and it is able to identify a track (NTN, Nato Track Number) either autonomously or with the help of the ground air defence radar that has already correlated the FPL information with the trasponder codes of each track. Indeed, as there’s neither an active No-Fly Zone nor an embargo on Libya yet, the Libyan aircraft can still fly almost freely outside its home country, provided that a proper Diplomatic Clearance to cross foreign countries’ airspaces is issued by the nations interested by its route and, for sure, by doing that, it is not challenging anybody. Therefore, for sure, it was challenging the NATO AWACS on Mar. 5…..
By the way, unlike other aircraft known to be part of the Gaddafi’s fleet, the Libyan Falcon 900EX 5A-DCN was quite “active” in the last weeks. On Feb.23 the aircraft flew to Minsk, Belarus, and returned to Tripoli on Feb. 26. A suspicious but legitimate flight.