Europe always makes war a challenge. During the years of no-fly zone enforcement in the Balkans (1993-95), European ham-radio enthusiasts collected and shared information on the operational communications frequencies used by NATO aircraft. A friend of mine came back from Sarajevo carrying someone’s self-published – but very popular – paperbound “book” of NATO communication lore, purchased from a bookstall on a street corner. A Dutch naval officer with whom my Italy-based command worked closely said the same book could be bought in Amsterdam.
The Internet has only expanded the opportunities for amateurs to follow military operations. As day 3 of the coalition effort against Libya ends, European media report that the ham-radio contingent is at it again. But in 2011, a printed book would be way too “dial-up”; today’s ham operators are copying positional updates from aircraft communications and putting them out on Twitter. The air-tracking dilettante now has other resources too, like LiveATC.net and Flightradar24.com, which allow for comparison and analysis of continuously updated data from different sources.
Air Force B-2s flying from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri this weekend managed to disguise their approach to Libya by using deceptive call signs. But the special-purpose “Commando Solo” aircraft was identified almost immediately by a Dutch ham operator with a military background. Fortunately, Commando Solo is the uniquely configured EC-130J used to broadcast messages to audiences in a target country like Libya, so whoever listens to it is at least hearing something the U.S. government wants to be heard. Courtesy of the enterprising Dutchman, you can listen to Commando Solo’s message to Libyans here.
Although the significance of this to the security and effectiveness of coalition operations should not be exaggerated, it’s not meaningless either. The coalition’s central purpose is blinding Qaddafi’s air-defense systems and keeping his aircraft on the ground. If his early-warning radars and air command centers were functioning, the Tweets of random amateurs about enemy aircraft positions would be little more than entertainment. But Qaddafi’s military systems have been taken out. Assuming he’s still got Internet access, there are some Twitter feeds he should be subscribing to.