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Analysis – Spectrum Warriors

MONS decodes USAF’s deployment of EC-130H aircraft to South Korea


The US Air Force (USAF) has reportedly deployed a single Lockheed Martin EC-130H COMPASS CALL Electronic Warfare (EW) aircraft to the Republic of Korea, according to media reports on 15 January. Details are scant regarding the deployment but the aircraft will almost certainly be drawn from one of the USAF’s two EC-130H units, either the 41st or 43rd Electronic Combat Squadron, both part of the 55th Electronic Combat Group based at Davis-Montham airbase in Arizona.

Open sources state that the EC-130H Block-35 Baseline-1 configuration is capable of jamming hostile radio communications, ground-based air surveillance radar (particularly early warning radar) and radio navigation systems. Based on these capabilities this would suggest that the aircraft has a frequency jamming range which possibly includes High Frequency (HF), Very High Frequency (VHF) and Ultra High Frequency (UHF) radio communications from circa three megahertz to three gigahertz (GHz). Such a frequency range would enable the aircraft to jam radio navigation systems used by aircraft such as VOR (VHF Omni-Directional Radio Range) beacons, airfield instrument landing systems which typically transmit in UHF alongside air-to-air and ground-to-air radio communications, and some ground-based early warning radars which transmit in VHF/UHF, L-band (1.215GHz to 1.4GHz) and S-band (2.3GHz to 2.5GHz/2.7GHz to 3.7GHz).

The aircraft has almost certainly been deployed in response to ongoing tensions between the United States and the DPRK regarding the latter’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes. The purpose of the deployment could be two-fold: Firstly, to ensure that EC-130H crews gain familiarity with operating in the Korean theatre, and secondly to passively collect intelligence regarding the behaviour of the electronic elements of the DPRK’s Integrated Air Defence System (IADS).

The IADS will rely on VHF/UHF communications between Ground Controlled Interception (GCI) centres and Korean People’s Air Force fighter aircraft, and possibly between GCI centres and deployed ground-based air defence systems such as surface-to-air missile and anti-aircraft artillery emplacements. Moreover, HF and V/UHF communications could be used to network GCI centres with one across over long distances. The DPRK IADS is known to operate several ground-based air surveillance/early warning radars which transmit in the frequencies potentially covered by the EC-130H, such as the NNIIRT 5N69 ‘Big Back’ radar with a transmission frequency of one to two gigahertz of which the DPRK is thought to operate two, according to the author’s sources, and the ST68U ‘Tin Shield’ radar of which it may possess three.

As previous operations involving the EC-130H in the Balkans and Middle East have illustrated, the aircraft plays a valuable role as a Campaign/Theatre level suppression of enemy air defence asset with a powerful capability to perform stand-off jamming against a wide array of electronic threats. The aircraft would almost certainly play a pivotal role in during any future confrontation between the US and the DPRK where an early, and comprehensive Offensive Counter Air effort would form a vital part of the overall air campaign to ensure that DPRK airspace is relatively sanitised so as to allow other strike assets to then prosecute attacks against DPRK weapons of mass destruction sites, and other potential centres of gravity such as political and military leadership targets. In light of these considerations, the EC-130H deployment to the Korean Peninsula is not surprising, and similar deployments may occur once again in the near future.

Thomas Withington



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