NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The Air Force has received its first EC-37B Compass Call electronic warfare aircraft from contractors BAE Systems and L3Harris, industry officials announced Tuesday.
BAE Systems said in a release that the Air Force will next start combined developmental and operational testing for this Compass Call, the first of 10 aircraft planned for the Air Force.
The new EC-37B fleet will replace Air Combat Command’s decades-old EC-130 aircraft, which the service is now retiring. BAE builds the electronic attack components of the new Compass Call in Hudson, New Hampshire, and L3Harris integrates that mission-specific hardware into a Gulfstream G550 business jet at its facility in Waco, Texas.
The Compass Call will conduct a variety of electronic warfare missions to jam enemy signals, including communications, radar and navigation systems. BAE said this will include suppressing enemy air defenses by blocking their ability to transmit information between weapon systems and command-and-control networks.
In a roundtable at the Air and Space Force Association’s Air Space and Cyber conference here, ACC Commander Gen. Mark Kelly said the EC-37B’s jamming capabilities will protect friendly ships and aircraft from enemy attack, and allow them to get closer to their targets.
The EC-37B’s mission and capabilities won’t be wildly different from the EC-130, Kelly said, especially since the Air Force updated the older Compass Call’s capabilities.
But the altitude and speed improvements that will come with the EC-37B will make it a considerable step up from its predecessor, Kelly said. The EC-130 has a ceiling of 25,000 feet and can fly at up to 300 miles per hour. G550s can fly past 40,000 feet and nearly twice that speed, which an L3Harris executive in 2021 said would allow the EC-37B to be able to target a greater range of enemy activities.
The EC-130 also is worn out, Kelly said, and the Air Force needs the EC-37 “yesterday.”
“There comes a point of every piece of equipment’s lifespan, we’ve squeezed every last drop of combat capability out of it,” Kelly said.
BAE would not say exactly what day, and where, the first new Compass Call was delivered. The Air Force did not immediately respond to a request for more information on the delivery.
Kelly said the EC-37B testing will primarily focus on making sure the integration of its mission systems is working correctly, since the Gulfstream air frame it is built from is known to be a solid aircraft.
That will include making sure the new Compass Call’s systems are talking to each other at the right time, and that its jamming capabilities are functioning and not straining the plane’s environmental systems, Kelly said.
“When we dial up the jamming power, or ask for a specific waveform, that waveform needs to come out in exactly the amount of ramp and power and frequency we asked for,” Kelly said.
Kelly said he doesn’t see the Air Force’s planned drone wingmen, or collaborative combat aircraft — some of which might be able to conduct electronic warfare operations — as something that could eventually replace the Compass Call.
Instead, he said, CCAs will complement the Compass Call fleet, along with the F-35 and F-15EX’s own EW capabilities.
However, he warned that the Air Force needs to make sure that as these different platforms operate in the same airspace, that they don’t inadvertently interfere with one another.
“It’s all got to merge together, and they have to operate — and oh, by the way, [let’s] be sure they don’t [commit] electronic fratricide on each other,” Kelly said.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.