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July 14, 2006The much in demand US Air Force EC-130 Compass Call electronic attack aircraft and crews have flown more than 11,000 hours covering operations in Southwest Asia. That feat breaks down to more than 4,000 hours in Afghanistan and some 7,200 hours in Iraq. And, the work performed by Compass Call airmen has taken on a new dimension. 

Developed for the electronics-rich environment of a Cold War European battlefield, the Compass Call has proved its effectiveness as a tactical asset in surgical jamming and electronic warfare in both Afghanistan and Iraq. This EW platform now not only helps jam specific frequencies to disrupt enemy command and control, but also helps combat remotely detonated explosives and interdict signals intelligence.

The Compass Call mission falls to the 55th Electronic Combat Group and its two units—the 41st Electronic Combat Squadron and 43rd ECS—at Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz. Talking with reporters Thursday at Andrews AFB, Md., 55th ECG members discussed their aircraft—on-hand was the latest version of the EC-130H—mission, and the changing environment.

According to Lt. Col. Dean Worley, who leads the group’s 755th Operations Support Squadron, changing needs in the war on terror have enabled combatant commanders to get over traditional “misunderstandings” about the role of electronic attack in support of ground operations.

“The level of [electronic warfare] understanding is much better now that it was even during Desert Storm,” Worley said.

The traditional suppression of enemy air defenses EW triad—communications jammers, radar jammers, and high-speed antiradiation missile-equipped tactical fighters—has evolved to a process more directed to thwart enemy activity on the ground, explained Worley. He went on to say that combating those threats—everything from explosive packages operated by remote control to localized communications between insurgent fighters—requires more flexible capabilities and commanders who understand those capabilities.

The Air Force has been upgrading the EC-130s to meet these changing requirements. Capt. Jennifer Kloin, a mission crew member from the 43rd ECS, explained that the Block 35 version—the latest version that is currently nearing completion of developmental testing—has a wide range of information operations upgrades to give mission crews greater ability to insert digital signal processing and extend frequency range. Upgrades include addition of a new digital signal acquisition subsystem and counter radar capability, as well as a dual-band Special Emitter Array, or SPEAR, jamming pod. Kloin explained that the SPEAR is not an “overt jammer,” since it will allow the Compass Call aircraft to focus reliable jamming energy on specific targets of interest from extended stand-off ranges, a capability that is in high demand in operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan. She said that the first Block 35 aircraft should enter operational test and evaluation in September.

Worley noted that Block 20 aircraft—the oldest of the Compass Calls—are being phased out, with the last one to be taken out of service by year’s end. He called the newer and more versatile Block 30s and Block 35s less “hardware-oriented.” 

Still the Block 35 on display at Andrews contained stacks of hardware, monitors, and signals equipment from the front to the rear. However, Worley pointed out that the new version features user-friendly Windows-based interfaces, from navigation to signals collection.

SSgt. Marqus Ambush, an airborne maintenance technician and one of the members of a Compass Call’s standard nine-member mission crew, explained that from his seat he could, if needed, access any problem inside the aircraft’s electronic systems. Ambush noted that the upgrades are making the platform more flexible and easier to task. And, he said, they allow the crew to prioritize signals by using new beta radars and flexible software packages to respond to emerging and non-traditional threats.