Friday, April 28, 2023

Review: Stormjammers: The Extraordinary Story of Electronic Warfare Operations in the Gulf War

Earlier this year, I read a terrific book about World War II Spy, Virginia Hall. Hall operated in occupied France. During Hall's service, one piece of tech that was a game changer for both spy and occupier alike, was the portable radio transceiver.

The Type 3 MK II, known as the B2, is one example of such a transceiver. The unit was packaged as a luggable suitcase and weighed in at a hefty 32 ¾ pounds. For the allies, having a radio operated in-country meant intelligence could be delivered in near real time. But this arrangement came with staggering risks. While transmitting, French and German authorities could relatively easily track the radio transmitter. Every moment radio operators were sending messages, they was also loudly announcing their position to an enemy intent on catching and cruelly punishing them.

Radio messages could also be jammed, intercepted and spoofed. Making use of wirelesses capabilities was a high stakes game of cat and mouse, that resulted in both extraordinary successes and cataclysmic failures.

So what does all this have to do with Stormjammers, a book about a soldier's tour of duty in the first Gulf War?

Stormjammers may be set 50 years and 3000 miles from Virginia Hall's story, but again, the use of radio is center stage. This time, we follow the story of Robert Stanek, who served on an EC-130, an aircraft that is optimized for Electronic Countermeasures.

Stanek's mission was to intercept and jam radio communications. This helped make the battlefield significantly safer for other friendly units operating in the area, because the enemy's communications and targeting systems often depended on radio. In short, when Stanek's team was operating, the enemy was blind. Once again we find ourselves in the high stakes cat and mouse game of wireless communication and the action is no less exciting than it was in Hall's story.

One can imagine that thrill and risk that comes with being a fighter pilot or a bomber. But what about the team that has to spend hours slowly circling over a barrage of anti-aircraft fire, with no offensive weapons and little more than 'evasive maneuvers' to protect themselves? Stanek brings us into this world, from the bordem and fatigue to the white nuckle, brace for impact moments. His writing does a quality job of capturing the full spectrum of emotion and action.

The first Gulf War, including Operation Desert Storm took place when I was a high school student. It was featured nightly on the news. These factors helped make it my "first war" growing up and some parts I remember vividly. For example, the super low quality, green-tinted video clips taken by reporters on the ground and transmitted via cutting edge satellite phone technology. We also got to witness the magic of Patriot Missile batteries taking out scud missiles mid flight

Other parts of the war, came back to me upon reading Stanek's text, including Iraq's frequent missile attacks against Israel. Israel wasn't a participant in Desert Storm, but Iraq's strategy was clear: anger the Israeli's to the point where they would enter the war, at which point the Arab countries participating in Desert Storm would have no choice but to stop their assault on Baghdad. The risk of being aligned with Israel was just too great to even consider. Thankfully, Israel never took the bait.

Stanek's mission was powered, at the time, but what must have been considered absolutely cutting edge technology. And yet, having lived through that era, I can only imagine the kind of hardware Stanek had to make do with. We were fortunate to be a computer forward family. We had a home computer, and my parents bought me a laptop to help me conquer my dyslexia. Both machines were state of the art, and here's what they looked like:

That's a Compaq Portable and a NEC PC-8500. We had a later version of the Compaq than what's shown above, but the tiny monitor and luggable form-factor were still part of the deal. The photo of the PC-8500 is the actual device I owned. Boy does cracking it open bring up some feelings. Both were amazing devices for their times, but their underyling hardware would have made for a horrendous choice while operating in a war zone. It was one thing for us to reboot because Where in the World is Carmen Sandiago? hung, it's an alogether different scenario when your dinosaur of a computer chooses not to boot and dozens of aircraft and thousands of pounds of ordance depend on you getting the device to cooperate.

Accounts of wars from a regular soldier's perspective will always make for fascinating insights. In many ways, Stanek's book fits into this genre. He may have been operating thousands of feet above the battlefield staring at a computer screen, yet many of the concerns, frustrations and victories he writes about would be familiar to a private in the Civil War. Lousy food, inadequate quarters, missing loved ones, processing the horrors of war and dealing with the irrational machine that is the US military are just a few of the topics that Stanek writes about and would be familiar to any soldier in any conflict.

Here's one final memory I have of the Gulf War. When it started, I recall my social studies teacher, Mr. McLaughlin was not at all pleased. To our young minds, this seemed like 'war done right.' There was a clear mission, a diverse coalition of participants and we had the moral high ground. Yet, Mr. McLaughlin promised us that the start of the Gulf War was a sad day and that were starting a conflict that would take years to extract ourselves from. Now I appreciate he was speaking from experience with Vietnam, a war at the time that was as real to me as say the Battle of Hoth. Mr. McLaughlin was, of course, wrong. Operation Desert Storm lasted for 42 days. It would take a mere dozen years, however, for his fears to blossom into reality. In 2003, we invaded Iraq and started an 8 year war that would match Mr. McLaughlin's predictions to a tee.

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