The Navy wrapped up its “Prowler Sunset” retirement celebration last weekend at the picturesque Naval Air Station Whidbey Island in Washington State. The open house included the airfield’s last EA-6B flanked by EA-18G Growlers, the Grumman jet’s replacement, ripping overhead and performing the missing man formation.
There have been few investments in America’s air power arsenal that have paid off as well as the EA-6B. The jet has served in every major aerial conflict since Vietnam. It wasn’t until operation Odyssey Dawn, the effort that ousted Gaddafi in 2011, that its successor, the EA-18G Growler, took over the electronic attack reigns. Still, the venerable jet kept fighting till its very last cruise, which concluded just last Winter, and saw the aircraft fly combat support missions against ISIS as part of Operation Inherent Resolve.
The fact of the matter is that many allied aircraft and soldiers vulnerable to improvised explosive devices (IEDs) would not have come home from combat missions without the Prowler’s electronic jamming umbrella, something that the Electronic Attack community is incredibly proud of.
Many of these Electronic Attack veterans, along with those who built and serviced the EA-6B over its half a century lifetime, attended Prowler Sunset to say goodbye to the venerable electronic attack platform one last time. The Prowler is also the last of the legendary ‘Grumman Iron’ family of tactical fighters and attack aircraft. Now, with its retirement, only the E-2 Hawkeye represents the Grumman (now Northrop Grumman) brand on American aircraft carrier decks.
Along with static displays, a slew of social outings and other smaller events that occurred last weekend as part of the Prowler Sunset program, a new permanent Prowler display was christened to commemorate all the aforementioned people involved with the EA-6 program and especially those who died operating it. As such, it was clearly an emotional weekend for many who attended.
Retirements may be a once in a lifetime occurrence for each aircraft type, but they are common these days when it comes to military aviation, especially as fleets shrink and capabilities get shrugged off or get ported over to multirole systems due to budgetary constraints. Yet saying goodbye to the Prowler is just a tough pill to swallow. It truly represents the end of a whole way of flying and fighting within Naval Aviation. Knowing how overbuilt these “flying fryingpans” were, one always hopes they would soldier on, but the Growler is the new kid on the block and it has completely replaced the EA-6B in the Navy’s inventory.
Even though the Navy has sent the EA-6B off into the sunset, the Prowler’s last flight is still years away as the USMC continues to fly the aircraft, although on a much smaller scale. Seeing as the Marines never bought into the EA-18G Growler program, or the Super Hornet for that matter, there is no replacement for their EA-6Bs in sight.
As of now, the USMC Prowler force will be shuttered by 2019. This date is based on budgetary planning, not on the longevity of the aircraft. The USMC’s planned F-35Bs and Cs will have inherent electronic warfare capabilities, but using the aircraft in a stock configuration for electronic attack and standoff jamming remains highly suspect. This will leave the UMSC’s existing Harrier and legacy Hornet force without organic jamming support.
A more realistic solution would for the USMC to continue to fly the EA-6B well into the next decade until a proper replacement can be either found in the form of a modified F-35 or a separate jamming platform, which could possibly be unmanned, can be fielded. Although the F-35 is stealthy and has an electronic warfare suite built around self protection, combining the Prowler or Growler’s standoff jamming capabilities with the F-35’s capabilities give it the best chances of survival during operations against a near peer-state competitor. In other words, the USMC probably needs some sort of jamming aircraft solution eventually as it moves to an all F-35 fixed wing fighter force.
Regardless of the fact that a couple dozen EA-6Bs will continue to prowl the skies with USMC titles on their wings, Navy carrier decks will never be quite the same. Nor will the airspace over the Pacific Northwest where the scream of J-52 turbojets and the silhouette of the tadpole sharped, unicorn-nosed jet appearing suddenly between the clouds has been a fixture for almost half a century.
Photo credits: All shots of EA-6B flyover and taxi are courtesy of Daniel Gorun, who has some awesome shots on his flickr page, especially of aviation happenings around the Pacific Northwest. Make sure to check out his page here. All other photos via US Navy.
Contact the author Tyler@Jalopnik.com