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[] MSNBC 11.3.02: Electronic War In The Afghan Skies,
March 11, 2002

Electronic War In The Afghan Skies

Special forces unit beams down message to Taliban, al-Qaida 

By Bob Arnot, MSNBC

OVER AFGHAN AIRSPACE, March 11 ? "Taliban and al-Qaida fighters, we know where you are hiding," said a voice over frequency 850. "Taliban and al-Qaida fighters, you are our targets." During the most intense combat undertaken by American troops so far in the Afghan war, the United States Air Force is conducting an electronic combat mission.

"We?re shooting electrons, not bullets," said an electronic warfare specialist, a Master Sergeant nicknamed D.J., who requested that his real name not be used.

While the U.S. Air Force has air superiority over Afghanistan, it?s using highly specialized aircraft to achieve information superiority as well.

This is the brave new world of information warfare. The plane ? called Commando Solo II and attached to the 193d Special Operations Wing of the Pennsylvania National Guard ? operated without fighter escorts from a classified forward base of operations. Its altitude and route are also classified.

The broadcasting platform can transmit on AM, FM and short-wave frequencies. It?s also an airborne TV station capable of using any of the four worldwide television standards. Until recently, these electronic combat missions were considered "black ops" ? so secret, the crew was forbidden tell their wives or children about them. Commando Solo II?s mission was the first electronic warfare combat flight on which journalists were permitted to travel.

Big Payload

The plane, the oldest Hercules aircraft in the Air Force inventory, is crammed with electronic gear, making it one of the heaviest C-130s still flying. 

Six 1,000-watt and three 10,000-watt transmitters occupy the back half of the airplane. The front half contains dozens of electronic instruments manned by an electronic warfare officer and three electronic communications specialists. 

Once over Afghan airspace, a conical device, or drogue, is lowered over 300 feet from the bottom of the aircraft. D.J. pulls out a minidisk and drops it into a standard commercial minidisk player. He pushes a play button to begin broadcasting a greeting in Dari and Pashto, the main languages in Afghanistan. Then four minutes later, a broadcast is beamed down in Arabic ? targeted at al-Qaida fighters.

Then, over a speaker system in D.J.?s console, fast-paced local music is played. 

"Music has not been heard for years. It has huge psychological impact," said the mission control chief, identified as Maj. John. The music was followed by a carefully crafted statement about the legitimacy of the Afghan government.

Other messages suggested that Taliban fighters surrender because Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban?s supreme leader, and Osama bin Laden have themselves fled the battle. The goal is to destroy the enemy?s willingness to fight, Maj. John said. The message is heard on the ground throughout much of Afghanistan.

U.S. Army detachment commander Capt. Mark Mauri was with the 4th Psychological Operations group onboard the plane. Mauri, a special forces veteran, said, "We don?t do actual propaganda, we use the truth."

?Hitting The Heartstrings?

Psychological Operations, known as PsyOps, use country studies, intelligence reports, the current situation on the battle field and knowledge of the local population to shape their message. 

The broadcasts are targeted to "hit the heartstrings" of fighters who have family and loved ones back home, Mauri said. One radio script begins: "Attention soldiers of the Taliban! You do not have to risk your lives."

Hard-core al-Qaida and Taliban fighters also hear: "Osama bin Laden has abandoned you ? because he has no concern for your life ? his life is more important than yours ? he does not care if you die ? he hides in safety waiting for your death. You are dying only for a man who has abandoned you."

Do these messages work? Military officials point to the 1991 Gulf War, when an estimated 90,000 Iraqis, in interviews conducted by U.S. military intelligence, said they surrendered as a direct result of PsyOps messages.

The same officials say scores of Taliban now held at a U.S. detention facility in Guantanimo Bay in Cuba say they surrendered after hearing PsyOps transmissions. Broadcasts are supplemented by leaflets dropped on the enemy by military planes.

"If we get a thousand Taliban on the ground to surrender, that?s a 1,000 fewer Taliban that American forces will have to fight," said Mauri.

After an 8-hour tour of duty, the Commando Solo II returned to its classified base as preparations are made for the next day?s flight.

Bob Arnot is MSNBC?s special foreign correspondent.

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