This story appeared in Radio World in February 2002. Given interest in the Commando Solo operation in Haiti in 2010, we’ve reposted it.
In the months following Sept. 11, it was hard to turn on a TV or radio and not be deluged with information about America’s military actions in Afghanistan.
While much attention has been given to the combat and humanitarian activities, Americans got only a tantalizing glimpse into the work of the Army’s psychological warfare unit and the military’s ongoing radio broadcasts over hostile territory.
‘Commando Solo’ is a modified Hercules EC-130E transport built by Lockheed. The 193rd maintains six at its headquarters. The task of broadcasting propaganda messages to the local Afghan population and Taliban soldiers became the responsibility of the 193rd Special Operations Wing, a part of the Air Force Special Operations Command.
With 1,500 active members, 1,200 in Middletown, Pa., the 193rd is the third-largest Air National Guard unit in the United States. The unit averages 10 assignments per year.
Broadcasting simultaneous high-power MW, HF, FM and TV signals from an aircraft is no simple feat. Special planes with a fascinating array of hardware are needed to make it happen.
At the heart of it all is the EC-130E Commando Solo, a specially-modified four-engine Hercules transport built by Lockheed Aircraft. The 193rd maintains six of these planes at its Middletown headquarters.
Even a quick glance will tell you this is no ordinary transport. Sprouting from the tail of the EC-130 are four pods containing television transmitting/receiving antennas. Larger pods slung under the wings contain additional TV and FM antennas.
For vertically-polarized medium-wave broadcasting, the EC-130 can lower a cable weighed by a 500-pound weight from beneath its belly. The horizontally-polarized short-wave antenna is unreeled from the tail of the aircraft.
In addition to the four-person flight crew, the EC-130 carries five crew members to operate the broadcast equipment. Mounted in racks on each side of the fuselage is equipment to receive and transmit on all international broadcast channels.
Materials to be aired can be in the form of reel-to-reel tape, cassette, MiniDisc, VHS, U-Matic and Beta SX. Some of the equipment would be familiar to broadcasters: rack-mounted Ramko audio mixers, Otari 5050 tape machines, Valley People processors, Sony U-Matic video decks and a Panasonic switcher.
Others, such as the Collins digital communications receivers and frequency-agile exciters, are more specialized. The ability to monitor the technical quality of broadcasts is provided by Hewlett-Packard spectrum analyzers.
In addition to transmitting program material, facilities were provided to jam local transmissions, in an effort to persuade listeners to tune to the propaganda frequencies. Some details of the mission were classified, but can be inferred. For example, during a previous deployment to Kosovo, there were six simultaneous transmissions being broadcast, four on FM, one TV and one medium-wave.
Immediately behind the equipment racks are the transmitters, antenna switching matrix and dummy loads. The entire package was designed by Rockwell for the unique needs of the 193rd and to fit in the relatively small confines of the EC-130.
The antenna matrix is a custom design from Delta Electronics and enables connections from transmitters and receivers to antennas and dummy loads. The matrix is controlled remotely from rack-mount units with digital displays.
Medium-wave and HF broadcasting is accomplished via a 10 kW, frequency-agile Rockwell-Collins transmitter. The red and white cabinet and styling are similar to the Rockwell broadcast gear of the 1980s, although there are no front-panel meters or controls; those functions are accomplished from remote panels in the equipment racks.
FM transmitters are solid-state units manufactured by Microwave Power Devices. The TV-8022 10 kW television transmitter is a custom design by Rockwell.
Behind the transmitters are racks with the antenna switch gear and a number of dummy loads manufactured by Bird. An H-P network analyzer is available for transmission line and antenna adjustments.
All of the transmitters save the television are able to be retuned in flight. The TV transmitter’s cavity needs to be changed, and that operation takes two to three hours on the ground.
Although all of the 193rd’s aircraft were deployed, officials allowed a Radio World reporter to walk through the full-scale mockup of the rear of the plane, used for training purposes.
While the type of gear used for broadcast is declassified, some details of the installation remain secret. Most notable are innovations used by the Rockwell engineers to get all the transmitters to work harmoniously in such a cramped environment.
When one considers some of the interference and intermod problems that have arisen from recent co-location projects, the task of operating several frequency-agile transmitters in such close proximity on board an airplane becomes all the more impressive.
AC power for the on-board broadcast gear comes from the aircraft’s four Allison turboprop engines. Each has a 90 KVA generator attached, providing 220-volt, three-phase power at 400 Hz. Three converters change the 400 Hz power to 60 Hz AC for the rack-mounted equipment, while the transmitters and air-conditioning equipment have 400 Hz transformers or power supplies.
The total flyaway cost for the EC-130J is more than $90 million per aircraft.
In-flight equipment failures are virtually unheard-of on the 193rd’s Hercules aircraft due to the rigorous maintenance program, according to military sources. Once every 18-24 months, each EC-130 is brought in for a comprehensive maintenance overhaul. During that time, most of the broadcast equipment is removed, checked out and recalibrated before the plane is returned to service.
After air strikes cleared Afghan territory of fixed anti-aircraft weapons, a threat to the EC-130s and other U.S. aircraft remained from handheld devices such as the Stinger missile. Each of the 193rd’s planes are able to deploy flares and metal chaff as a defense against such attacks. Broadcast flights over hostile territory also were protected by fighter coverage.
Due to the small number of airplanes used and the unique nature of the 193rd’s equipment, the Air Force has no training program for the operation and maintenance of the broadcast gear on these special Hercules aircraft. Local Guard personnel have developed their own intensive nine-month training program for the group’s equipment, which includes classroom instruction, computer-based training, hands-on experience in a simulator and actual operation of the equipment during training flights over the Atlantic.
Crews occasionally are evaluated for their proficiency with the equipment via unannounced spot inspections during routine flights.
It may come as a surprise, but there is virtually no cross-pollination between employees of local radio and TV outlets in central Pennsylvania and the Guard personnel on duty with the 193rd.
All who serve have different jobs in civilian life, only maintaining broadcast gear about one weekend per month. This situation might be explained in part by the fact that for much of its existence, the mission of the 193rd has been cloaked in secrecy.
An operator verifies video quality of the aircraft’s TV transmitter. Although the group traces its origins to a fighter squadron formed in 1942, its current mission of psychological/informations operations, or PSYOP, began in 1968, and remained classified until 1989. Over the years, the 193rd carried out secret missions in Vietnam, South Korea, Panama, Puerto Rico, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Kuwait.
As word of the 193rd’s unique mission spread in military circles, the unit became involved in Air Force, Navy and NATO operations and exercises. Threatened with elimination by Congress during a series of military budget cuts, the 193rd decided in 1989 to “go public” about its important mission. It was spared the congressional ax, and remains a vital part of the Air Force Special Operations Command, according to its supporters.
Beginning in 1968 with four Lockheed C-121 Super Constellations equipped with radio and NTSC black-and-white television transmitters, the 193rd updated its equipment as technology improved. In 1977, the aging Constellations were replaced with the newer C-130 Hercules aircraft, and color television capability in all formats was added.
Recently the 193rd evaluated a new type of phased array satellite communications antenna. Such a device makes possible in-flight reception of satellite television broadcasts, adding another means to rebroadcast PSYOPs.
Delivering the U.S. military’s message to the Afghan people and Taliban soldiers involved several military organizations. The material broadcast by the 193rd was written and produced by the Fourth Psychological Operations Group in Fort Bragg, N.C., which also was responsible for the content on leaflets dropped by an Air Force unit that uses C-17 cargo aircraft.
One of the problems of broadcasting to an area such as Afghanistan is that few people have radios. The U.S. government decided to purchase wind-up receivers to be air-dropped to the local population.
Broadcasting last fall took place daily between the hours of 0500-1000 and 1700-2200 local time on 864, 1107 and 8700 kHz. While the 193rd received numerous reception reports from ham radio operators and shortwave listeners, it was not able to provide QSL cards to verify these messages.
Tom Vernon is a multimedia consultant working in Philadelphia.