OFF THE EASTERN SEABOARD — Name a recent U.S. military operation, and you can pretty much guarantee that a specially modified Air Force plane was somewhere in the vicinity, trying to influencing the minds of the people below. It’s called the Commando Solo. Ordinarily, civilians are not allowed on board.
The 193rd Special Operations Wing operates a fleet of three of these EC-130J aircraft, cargo haulers that have been converted into flying radio and television stations. These “psychological operations” aircraft can broadcast their own signal over AM and FM radio, UHF and VHF television bands — or override broadcast stations on the ground, something they apparently did during operations in Bosnia and Iraq.
I recently accompanied a Commando Solo crew on a training mission. It was an unusual opportunity to see the crew at work testing their radio and television equipment at full power.
The crew calls it “200-mile work”: In order to avoid interference with domestic frequencies — the aircraft can crank up to 1,000 watts of effective radiated power — the aircraft flies more than 200 miles off the East Coast.
Once we’re safely out over the Atlantic, says Weapons Systems Officer Lt. Col. Mike Rice, “it’s game on.”
These aircraft play a crucial role in reaching — and persuading — vulnerable civilian populations. During the recent Haiti earthquake-relief mission, Commando Solo aircraft based out of Puerto Rico relayed live broadcasts of Voice of America call-in shows in Creole, Haiti’s national language. During breaks in the programming, the plane broadcast public service announcements, giving earthquake victims information on everything from emergency sanitation to food-distribution points.
But Commando Solo also has a key mission in combat zones. As Danger Room reported in 2001, these aircraft played a crucial role in post-September 11 operations, reinforcing anti-Taliban messages, and helping persuade Afghans that U.S. intentions were good. Commando Solo radio broadcasts helped fill an important information gap in a country where a large part of the population was illiterate, and where television reception can be extremely spotty.
In other words, the aircraft needs to be able to operate anywhere globally; the broadcasting systems have to compatible with worldwide broadcasting formats and television encoding systems.
This training mission is straightforward: They set up different orbits and drop out different antennas. The EC-130J crews also practice aerial refueling, and occasionally perform some high-speed training missions with special operations forces.
During the training mission, the crew also monitors a bank of receivers, to listen to and test a broadcast that’s being pumped out by the aircraft.
And of course, there’s a microwave in the cockpit, which makes life for the crew a bit easier on a long mission. This is the first flight as aircraft commander for Lt. Matthew Plasterer. During the pre-flight brief, he asks Technical Sgt. Jeremy Smith a crucial maintenance question: “Is the microwave working?”
Smith answers in the affirmative.
“Yeah, that’s almost a red ‘X’ [major maintenance issue] if it isn’t,” Plasterer grins.
Much of the crew are part-timers: Officially, the wing is part of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard, although most of its missions are for Air Force Special Operations Command. The vice wing commander, Col. Jerry Otterbein, pictured here, is a commercial pilot for American Airlines in civilian life.
Not that the crew is enjoying the in-flight movie. Because this is a training exercise with lots of different events — Weapons Systems Officer Rice describs his checklist as a “sushi menu” of different procedures — the crew stays quite busy during the flight. Conditions in the back of the aircraft are quite cramped, and the aircraft has a pretty substantial cooling system to keep all the electronics from overheating.
Television broadcasts are limited to one analog channel; depending on where they are broadcasting, the crew has to re-tune the system, relying on international frequency guides. In the future, however, the system might eventually need an upgrade.
“With the world going to a digital format, we don’t have the capability,” Rice says. “It’s purely analog.”
“The biggest challenge is measuring our effectiveness,” said Rice. “We don’t have a way to look at it — we don’t have BDA.
In Haiti, however, “it was pretty evident that we were making a difference,” Rice adds. Many Haitian broadcasters were knocked out, and the military airdropped hand-cranked radios so Haitians could get timely information on relief efforts and food distribution. For example, Rice says they might change a delivery point for a delivery of humanitarian packages; a Commando Solo plane would broadcast the information; and within hours, Haitians would start forming queues at the new distribution point. “Haiti was one of the few times where we got clear feedback,” he said.
With operations like Iraq, the results are a bit more intangible. Rice says many of the Commando Solo broadcasts during early phase of Operation Iraq Freedom were simple rebroadcasts of the BBC: It was perceived as a more neutral, and therefore more trusted, outlet, by Iraqis. In Afghanistan, lots of the broadcasts post-9/11 were simple Afghan pop music. After years of rule by the Taliban, which forbade pop music, Afghans were eager to tune in.