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General: Electronic Jamming a Growing Problem for Aircraft in Syria

An AC-130 gunship jettisons flares over an area near Hurlburt Field, Fla. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Julianne Showalter)
An AC-130 gunship jettisons flares over an area near Hurlburt Field, Fla. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Julianne Showalter)

The landscape in Syria has become increasingly saturated with manned aircraft, drones, weapons and ground forces since the civil war began there in 2011.

The U.S. has found itself operating in congested airspace challenged by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and backed by Russia.

And while jamming communications as a self-defense measure isn't new, lately it's affecting AC-130 gunships operating in the area, according to the head of U.S. Special Operations Command.

"Right now in Syria, we're in the most aggressive [electronic warfare] environment on the planet from our adversaries," Gen. Raymond A. Thomas III said April 25 before an audience at the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation's GEOINT 2018 Symposium. His comments were first reported by The Drive.

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"They're testing us everyday -- knocking our communications down, disabling our AC-130s, et cetera," Thomas said during his speech, using the jamming example to underline the need for more data security as the multi-domain battlespace expands.

Thomas did not elaborate on how the jamming affects an AC-130 gunship crew or whether it puts lives at risk in the process. He also did not say which adversary -- Islamic State fighters, Iranian-backed militia or Russian troops -- was conducting the jamming.

The Pentagon in recent months has moved to acquire more anti-jamming and electronic warfare technologies and weapons that can disable hostile threats. For example, the Air Force and Army have both used electronic measures to take out ISIS drones in Syria in non-lethal ways.

In 2016, the Air Force used an electronic jammer to stop drones headed toward friendly troops' location, then-Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said. She suggested at the time that the U.S. could easily repurpose electronic weapons systems to address these types of emerging threats.

Syria is not the only theater seeing an increase in jamming activities. Electronic warfare is often used in Eastern Ukraine.

For months, Russian-backed separatists have been jamming signals to misdirect or take out the commercial drones Ukrainian soldiers use to conduct aerial surveillance. The attacks, first observed in 2014, triggered U.S. troops to keep watch as they trained Ukrainian guardsmen on the western side of the country.

"It is good for us to be aware how they fight," Evelyn Farkas, then-deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, said in a 2015 interview with Military Times. "We have not fought wars the way they do in kind of an urban, mixed urban and nonurban setting with UAVs, with electronic jamming."

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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