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Gunship Crews Practice Extra Vigilance Amid Jamming in Syria

An AC-130U gunship from the 4th Special Operations Squadron, flies near Hurlburt Field, Fla., Aug. 20, 2016. (U.S. Air Force photo/Julianne Showalter)
An AC-130U gunship from the 4th Special Operations Squadron, flies near Hurlburt Field, Fla., Aug. 20, 2016. (U.S. Air Force photo/Julianne Showalter)

HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. -- The electronic jamming signals affecting AC-130 gunships over Syria may have crews checking and cross-checking their data, including target information, before they lock on with their cannons, according to a top commander here.

"Whether that's being man-made, or maybe it's a mistake inside the airplane, it's hard to say sometimes, but the process is, as you see those things pop up, the safety for the people on the ground is the primary concern," said Col. Tom Palenske, commander of the 1st Special Operations Wing and installation commander here.

Military.com spoke with Palenske, a former Army UH-1H crew chief, while accompanying Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson on a tour of Air Force Special Operations Command this week.

The systems in the AC-130 "Spooky" have a built-in check in the software to test and translate the latest aircraft operating update back to the crew. Palenske said if the system "sees an anomaly," it will flag it.

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In any case, an AC-130 crew will take extra measures to ensure they have the right data to execute the mission, he said.

"We're not going to kill ourselves out of this war. And the way you do that is you make sure you're as precise as possible, only targeting the guys we've validated as bad guys," Palenske said, referring to operations in the Middle East where the gunships have flown countless missions, often with danger-close strikes.

"When you're going to put lethal fires down in either enemy position or to protect friendlies, you're concerned about the innocents around both our guys in uniform and civilians," he said. "And when there's some glitch being put out there by trons that threatens the accuracy of that, then the [AC-130 crews] have got to make sure they do no harm."

Currently, the AC-130 uses a 105mm howitzer, a 40mm cannon and a 25mm Gatling cannon for a variety of large-caliber ammunition.

With Syria becoming more and more contested as additional aircraft and weapons come into the airspace, "we identify it and we put in measures," Palenske said, without defining specifics. "It's just like warfare has been from the good old days. You get a bigger arrow and the other guy gets a bigger shield, and it just keeps going."

Palenske did not say what kind of electronic warfare equipment adversaries are using, nor who the adversaries are, even though Islamic State fighters, Iranian-backed militia and Russian troops are in country.

Recently, the head of U.S. Special Operations Command publicly said electronic jamming for the gunships was a reason for getting more military data protections as the multi-domain battlespace expands.

"They're testing us every day -- knocking our communications down, disabling our AC-130s, et cetera," Army 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.

"Right now in Syria, we're in the most aggressive [electronic warfare] environment on the planet from our adversaries," Thomas said.

When asked if the jamming in any way affects crew safety, Palenske said, "No, the thing flies fine."

"It's not going to come spinning around. It flies fine," he said.

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

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