It's one of the lesser-known — but also one of the most important — weapons in the fight against the Islamic State: The EC-130H Compass Call, a suite of complex communication-jamming systems, stuffed into aging cargo planes that date back to the Vietnam War.
But over the next dozen years, the Compass Call will get a new lease on life. By the end of 2029, the Air Force is planning to transplant the guts of its EC-130Hs into 10 new airframes, dubbed the EC-X.
And not a moment too soon. The airframes that make up the Air Force's current fleet of 15 EC-130Hs date back decades, and they're growing increasingly creaky. The 386th Expeditionary Wing in the Middle East, for example, has one Compass Call aircraft that dates back to 1973 and another that first flew in 1964.
The EC-130H program was launched in 1983 and adapted older C-130 aircraft.
The planes have since served in every major U.S. contingency operation, including Kosovo, Haiti, Panama, Libya, Iraq, Serbia and Afghanistan, and have been continuously deployed to support U.S. Central Command since 2004. For example, Compass Call aircraft are now being flown on a daily basis to jam ISIS fighters' communications as the coalition supports Iraqi troops.
"If you can't talk, you can't fight — it's that simple," Lt. Col. Josh Koslov, commander of the 43rd Expeditionary Electronic Combat Squadron, said in a Jan. 10 interview at the 386th's home base. "Our job is to create massive confusion in the Daesh network."
Daesh is a pejorative Arabic nickname for ISIS.
But keeping four- or five-decade airframes in the air — especially when they're flown heavily in grueling environments such as the Middle Eastern desert — is a considerable challenge.
First Lt. John Karim, who oversees the 34 maintainers at the 43rd who repair the planes, said "they break more often than not" due to their age. Compass Call aircraft must be inspected regularly for structural weaknesses, and maintainers have to keep a close eye on the state of its wiring and engines. And keeping the newer electronic warfare technology working with the older airframes is particularly tricky.
The EC-130H airframe "was never really designed to do what we're doing with it," Karim said earlier this year.
After studying the matter, the Air Force has decided to buy an existing commercial airframe — not developing a new one from scratch — to serve as the new EC-X airframe, spokeswoman Capt. Emily Grabowski said in an email.
L3 Communications, the current contractor for the Compass Call, will decide which aircraft to buy and then handle the re-hosting, Grabowski said, but the Air Force isn't steering L3 to any particular air frame.
"We won't speculate on the outcome of contractor-led competition," Grabowski said. "We will follow the process and results closely and ensure the requirements are set."
The Air Force plans to field its first new EC-X Compass Call by the end of 2020, Grabowski said, and the rest will follow throughout the decade. All current EC-130H planes will be retired under the Air Force's plan.
Grabowski said that re-hosting the Compass Calls will cost about $2 billion over 10 years, including the cost of the 10 aircraft, initial spares and estimated inflation.
But when compared to the cost of sustaining the current fleet of aging aircraft over the 30 years the new planes are expected to serve, re-hosting will save "several billion dollars." Grabowski would not offer a more specific savings estimate.
In testimony before Congress last month, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein warned lawmakers that enacting a full-year continuing resolution for the rest of fiscal 2017 would, among other problems, delay fielding of the new Compass Call aircraft.
Grabowski said that a full-year CR would likely delay the first EC-X by at least 12 months. This would also mean the Air Force would have had to keep repairing the old Compass Calls in the meantime, tacking on up to $300 million more in sustainment costs.