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Helicopters In the Front Lines of Electronic War

April 3, 1990

BARACOA, Cuba (AP) _ For the past several months, a squad of Cuban military pilots have been on 24-hour alert for the attack of an invisible enemy. Last week, the first assault came.

The United States started sending TV Marti signals toward Cuba. The signal has carried mostly replays of old sports events and comedy shows, but the Cuban government regards it as a deadly serious offensive.

″This is a war; they have begun it,″ said Lt. Col. Thais Martinez, gesturing toward the United States as he spoke Monday to foreign journalists at Baracoa air base, a half-hour drive from Havana.

About 120 feet away stood two Soviet-made helicopters, key elements in the anti-TV Marti defense system.

The helicopters take off as soon as TV Marti begins to penetrate Cuban air space. Apparently with the help of on-board transmitters, the choppers are able to interfere with the signal.

Martinez is pleased with the results.

″Everything has been covered,″ he said, contending that TV Marti’s signal - emanating from a balloon off southern Florida - has been almost completely unable to reach Cuban TV sets for more than a few minutes.

The work of the helicopters is supplemented by two tall TV antennas in Havana, also with jamming capability.

TV Marti is the video version of Radio Marti, the 5-year-old station designed to bring entertainment and balanced news to Cuba. Both are run by the U.S. government’s Voice of America.

Transmissions of TV Marti are being sent during the early morning hours and the Bush administration says that after the current testing phase is over, it will decide whether the project is technologically and legally feasible.

President Bush told a convention of the National Association of Broadcasters in Atlanta on Monday that TV Marti will keep transmitting despite concerns Cuba’s President Fidel Castro may widen his jamming of U.S. radio stations. In retaliation for TV Marti’s transmissions, the Cubans have jammed the signals of AM radio stations in the U.S. Southeast.

Cubans not sympathetic to their government are eager for TV Marti to succeed, contending it will bring a new dimension to the drab fare now available from local programming.

But to Cuban officialdom and to many ordinary citizens, the initiative is just another example of U.S. imperialism at work.

″It’s a question of dignity,″ said Col. Jose Herrera.

Martinez said several bases are involved in the same type of jamming operations as the Baracoa facility.

He said the efficiency of the jamming operation has grown by the day. The first day, jamming started after 10 minutes (the State Department claims it was 23) and the figure has dropped progressively since.

It now takes only three minutes, said Martinez.

But the intereference is costly.

First Lt. Gustavo Sojo said the helicopters use up about 225 gallons of gasoline per hour, a substantial amount for a country as small and hard- pressed as Cuba. That’s about $1,200 per helicopter for four hours in the air.

Despite the costs, the government appears prepared to stand firm against the airwaves incursion.

’We are ready to resist for whatever time is necessary,″ said Martinez.

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