Several Air National Guardsmen of the 193rd Special Operations Wing at Harrisburg Airport in Middletown, Pa., gathered at the edge of the tarmac, bidding farewell to their families before deploying on an unnamed mission one recent Wednesday in August.
These airmen were not off to bomb Taliban militants or refuel fighters. However, the 1,800 Air Guardsmen and 450 technicians who support their operations daily are among some of the most in-demand assets in the Air Force and US Special Operations Command. They conduct information operations, civil affairs, electronic warfare, and their primary task: military information support operations.
Better known by its former definition of “psychological operations,” information support is the mysterious military art of influence through electronic media broadcasts. Nine years after 9/11, the unit’s missions are expanding and changing as Air Force Special Operations Command is utilizing the unit’s broad knowledge and experience in ever more scenarios.
“We have [areas] that might not be as relevant as they have been in the past [in our mission], and we are focusing on areas that are more important,” said Brig. Gen. Eric G. Weller, the 193rd SOW’s commander and a veteran EC-130 navigator. The wing, which flies a mix of heavily modified EC-130Js and “slick” C-130Js, is a frequent participant in missions ranging from airdrop for special operations forces and parachute exercises to electronic warfare and information operations.
“The wing does its own research and development, by and large,” Weller added. “We go from one mission into additional missions without missing much.”
The wing’s go-to capability, however, is its incredible onboard broadcast equipment for television, radio, and other communications over long distances. The capability is hinted at by the unique appearance of the wing’s EC-130Js, studded with antennas, vents, pods, and broadcast nodes hiding extendable cables.
An EC-130J Commando Solo in flight.(USAF photo by SMSgt. David Hawkins)
On the flight line with a visitor, SMSgt. Michael S. Kovach inspected an EC-130J, one of only three Commando Solo aircraft in the world. A layman might mistake the pods outboard from the engines for fuel tanks, but they are packed with VHF and UHF broadcasting equipment providing professional-grade television transmissions, said Kovach, the wing’s electronic communications systems section supervisor. With approximately 10,000 watts of television transmission power on the aircraft, for example, the broadcast strength of the signal is amplified by the special antennae and the altitude of the aircraft—something a ground station is unable to do.
Maj. Roger Kay, a former F/A-18 pilot who joined the Air Guard after his Navy service, jokes about flying other C-130s after performing sorties on “The Clipper”—his nickname for the jam-packed Commando Solo. He needs “a few more procedures” and more space to get the aircraft up in the air, he said, while going over a checklist in the cockpit of one of the wing’s Solos. “But it oozes off the runway.” A plain C-130 “practically jumps off the ground after you fly these.”
All of this equipment (the Solo weighs in at 164,000 pounds) is not easy to keep up. Due to the sensitivity of the equipment, the maintainers discourage the crews from performing troubleshooting on electronics during sorties. The amount of electronics on board requires a 200,000 BTU air-conditioner to run during operations. This is solely for the purpose of cooling the electronics, not the crew.
The systems are a mix. Some are old and some are new, said A1C Bryan Summy, a technician in the wing’s mission systems shop, a building filled with old and new panels, boxes, and components from the aircraft. New digital technology is often right next to large cylindrical vacuum tubes still used in television amplifiers. “We are the ones who have to fix things as they come up. … We’re technically our own depot, most days,” since the 193rd is the only unit performing this mission.
Still, the operators praise the maintainers’ efforts, noting mission success rates are often exceptional. In 2001, following the 9/11 terror attacks, two EC-130s flew 307 consecutive missions, broadcasting over Afghanistan. They pulled off a 100 percent mission success rate, Kovach noted. “That’s the caliber of folks we have here,” he said.
It wasn’t long ago (up until the end of the Cold War) that the sorties of Commando Solo were largely “in the black world,” said Col. John J. Dickinson, the 193rd Operations Group commander.
An airborne radio and television transmission mission was first identified as a needed capability after the Cuban Missile Crisis. This led to the EC-121 Coronet Solo, a capability the Department of Defense decided to put in the ANG for several reasons.
DOD needed institutional knowledge, less turnover, and a developed cadre of operators, Dickinson said. “It just fit better … in the Air Guard.”
Since the Vietnam War, the 193rd SOW has performed admirably in a long list of military actions: in 1983, broadcasting signals into Grenada; in 1989, coordinating psychological operations against the Manuel Noriega regime; and in 1990 and 1991, helping serve as the “Voice of the Gulf” and broadcasting other programs to help urge the surrender of thousands of Iraqi soldiers prior to the liberation of Kuwait.
A Pennsylvania ANG crew, including (l-r) MSgt. Aaron Harman, SMSgt. Frank Enterline (sitting), and SMSgt. James Pace, transmits a Voice of America broadcast to the people of Haiti during the US earthquake relief effort.(USAF photo by TSgt. Victoria Meyer)
Many Unique Missions
Crews are uniquely trained for the mission, said Kovach, and with the wide range of systems on the aircraft, crew members must be able to work interchangeably.
“We send guys to tech school, then … there are about 270 days of [initial qualification training], then a check ride,” he said of the process to qualify a systems operator for the several workstations inside the aircraft. This includes the mission systems officer, a sort of broadcast director for a given sortie, sitting by the back door.
It is a crowded space in the back of a Commando Solo, filled with banks of transmission equipment, monitors, amplifiers, and other broadcast gear one would normally associate with a major television network. “All of my operators are proficient in all the stations,” Kovach said, from TV to shortwave radio. “We try to get our operators as familiar as possible with our equipment. Most of these guys are here for most of their career. … They’ve built up incredible knowledge.”
The Air Guardsmen of the 193rd SOW are often called into action on short notice to bring their tools to bear in missions with global implications.
In 1994, the Commando Solo played a crucial role in Operation Uphold Democracy, where a US-led coalition helped reinstate ousted Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. EC-130 aircraft helped broadcast messages from Aristide, leading to the downfall of the military junta and the slowing of refugees fleeing the country for the US.
Earlier this year, a detachment of three aircraft and more than 50 airmen from the wing returned to Haiti—deploying on Jan. 14, 2010, to Puerto Rico for Operation Unified Response, the recovery mission following the devastating 7.0-magnitude earthquake. The shock had knocked out nearly all broadcasting capability on the island, and the need to get word out about relief operations was pressing. “We were [practically] the only game in town after the earthquake,” Kovach recalled.
“I remember we got a verbal deployment order the Friday after the earthquake, and we were on the way to Puerto Rico,” recalled Capt. Kathleen Pearson, a weapon systems officer with the 193rd SOW. Pearson, as the WSO, served as the broadcast director on sorties, coordinating with the crew, supervising the operation of broadcasts, and coordinating aerial refueling activities, among other tasks.
Running a real-time relay link with broadcasts of Voice of America updates and bulletins from the Haitian government, the EC-130J broadcast to the devastated island on AM and FM channels, on five different frequencies.
In the early going, there was a serious threat Toussaint Louverture Airport in Port-au-Prince would be swamped, and the operation was hanging by a thread. “We broadcast that if the airport was overwhelmed, relief operations could ground to a halt,” Kovach said.
“Thanks to our broadcasts, we were told, much of what was feared never came to pass.”
The 193rd SOW is at the tip of the military’s “psyops” spear, delivering message and information support for US operations around the world. The 4th Psychological Operations Group at Fort Bragg, N.C., the Army’s only active duty psyops unit, often develops messages and programs. Though there is no direct collaboration between the units, they have what wing officials call a “technological relationship”—as 193rd SOW aircraft and crews will visit Fort Bragg about twice a year to have exchanges, update Army personnel on the aircraft’s transmission capabilities, and familiarize them with the systems.
Over the last few years, the Commando Solo’s secondary missions have been called upon as well, utilizing its unique capabilities for the purposes of electronic attack and information operations. In Southwest Asia, since 9/11, Commando Solo aircraft have been deployed for operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan—filling in capabilities similar to the EC-130 Compass Call electronic attack aircraft.
An aircrew readies a Commando Solo on the ramp in Puerto Rico for a 14-hour mission to Haiti earlier this year. The crew broadcast public service announcements and safety information to the people on the beleaguered island. (USAF photo by TSgt. Victoria Meyer)
Now, it’s MISO
It doesn’t take much to get the reverse effect—you’re basically flipping a switch from transmit to jam, Kovach said.
The traditional mission of psychological operations got a facelift in June, when SOCOM and Pentagon leadership decided to change the term psychological operations to military information support operations (MISO). DOD wanted to build recognition and understanding of information and influence activities. MISO now describes everything intended to influence foreign audiences, according to department directives.
The change hasn’t affected much at the 193rd SOW, where officials note they simply deliver the messages, and only three of seven C-130s are Commando Solos.
The wing’s remaining four aircraft are C-130Js, and it is these aircraft that SOCOM is pressing into use more frequently.
By April of next year, the wing hopes to have tested a “plug-and-play” system for its C-130s, a palletized roll-on-and-off system giving the aircraft command and control tools, intelligence-surveillance- reconnaissance capability, and some limited MISO tools as a mission dictates, Weller said. “This is where our mission flexibility comes in,” he said. The effort is much like SOCOM’s push to develop a modular gun package for its MC-130 special ops transports, to help meet the surging demand for gunships in theater.
The unit is involved with high-altitude, low-opening parachute jumps, airlift of special operations forces personnel, information operations, and other tasks, Kovach said. The wing’s last two deployments to Southwest Asia have been in support of electronic attack activities, normally performed by EC-130H Compass Call aircraft.
Many missions don’t call for a full Commando Solo, he added, which is why the wing is working on a concept called a “palletized-broadcast kit,” a modular element that could be installed on a regular C-130 and taken out as demand warrants.
“This is a quick reaction capability,” Pearson said. “Say you had a leaflet drop in the morning; you come back, the pallet rolls on with broadcast equipment, and later in the day you’re up and sending signals.”
Think of it as a “Mr. Potato Head approach” to the wing’s future missions and flexibility, Pearson added with a laugh.
Despite all of its overseas success, Commando Solo has yet to support domestic disaster response operations, but more than likely will in the future. The homeland defense capabilities of EC-130J began getting more attention after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, wing officials noted. At the time, the 193rd was tasked with airlift but not MISO broadcasting.
Over the summer, an EC-130J participated in a disaster relief drill off the coast of New Jersey, testing the ability to put radio and TV back on the air after a hurricane, while coordinating with state officials and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “We got some attention for that; people are finding out what we can do” in a homeland defense capacity, Kovach noted.
“We are stretching our resources,” and the Guard is finding ways to get more cost-effective, Dickinson said.
He added, without elaborating, that the future of the wing lies in exploring the growth of information operations, networks, and utilizing technology in new ways—beyond TV and radio messaging. “I think you’re going to see growth in the information operations area,” he said. Much of the detail on these types of missions remains classified, but “we are well-positioned to be a part of this,” he said.