Yesterday, four EA-6B Prowlers belonging to Electronic Attack Squadron VAQ-134 ‘Garudas’ made a triumphant but bittersweet return to NAS Whidbey Island in upstate Washington. The squadron had been deployed aboard the USS George H.W. Bush for the last nine and a half months, and their arrival marked the end of the last EA-6B carrier deployment.
The EA-6B Prowler has been flying for over 46 years. The aircraft it directly descends from, the A-6 Intruder, was first flown some 54 years ago. The Prowler also represents the end of a long line of over-engineered and incredibly capable naval jet aircraft built by the Grumman Aerospace Company located in Bethpage New York. These heavy-duty, seemingly indestructible naval aircraft built by the famous firm are affectionately referred to as “Grumman Iron.”
It is sad to think that the famous “Flying Fry Pan” Prowler will never be seen on a US carrier again, although the venerable jet did go out with a bang. The type was called into combat late in the summer, along with the rest of the George H.W. Bush Carrier Strike Group, at first to stop ISIS’s gains in Iraq, and then to strike at the heart of the Terror State, deep into Syria.
For counter-insurgency operations, the Prowler can jam the electronic triggering of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and it can intercept and disrupt the enemy’s communications. Yet the Prowler was almost certainly practicing its core mission set on the night of the initial coalition strikes deep into Syria, and it most likely provided electronic screening for the F-22 Raptor’s combat debut.
Update: I have been informed that the Prowler did indeed support the opening strikes in Syria, but the squadron that did so was VMAQ-4 ‘Seahawks.’ Go Seahawks!
The Navy is at the end of its fairly rapid conversion to the Super Hornet derivative EA-18G Growler, a design that brings many technological benefits to the electronic attack mission. In exchange for the Growler’s automation, additional sensors (especially its APG-79 AESA radar and its ALQ-227 Communication Countermeasure Set), speed and multi-role capability, the ability to fly with four crewman gives way to a pilot and an electronic countermeasures officer (ECO) alone in the Growler. Additionally, the Prowler’s long range, a trait it inherited from its all-weather medium attack progenitor, the A-6 Intruder, will also be missed, as an EA-18G with four ALQ-99 Jamming pods on its canted wing pylons, and a center-line fuel tank, is a draggy beast and fuel hungry beast.
Still, the Prowlers are truly old aircraft, their turbojet engines are not fuel efficient and they lack the multi-role flexibility of the Growler, along with its commonality with over half the Navy’s fighter fleet. That being said, the Prowler will be sorely missed and multiple combat commanders will attest to the humble jet’s ability to have ‘incredible effects’ on the battlefield.
Don’t shed too many tears for the Prowler just yet, the USMC will continue to operate the aircraft in its most advanced ICAP III form for years to come.
Currently, the USMC’s EA-6B program will not conclude until 2019, although phasing out will begin in 2016 and no replacement for these essential jets has been announced yet. The F-35 has been the most likely contender, as the jet’s electronic warfare, surveillance and radar suite are considered cutting edge, and the F-35B and C model will eventually amount for the USMC’s entire tactical jet fleet.
If an EA-35 variant were to come to pass, it is still unclear if another crewman would be seated where the F-35B’s lift fan is, or if a single pilot would execute such a complex mission alone. Additionally, just how the Next Generation Jammers would be fitted to the stealthy aircraft remains undisclosed. Some ideas including mounting the pods in an enclosure over the jet’s twin weapons bays, while others see the jammers slung in stealthy pods under the jet’s wings.
The reality is that the USMC will remain very cash strapped up through the Prowler’s final phase out. At which time, the relatively small force of just four squadrons of USMC EA-6Bs could very well continue flying well into the next decade. The only other alternative is for the USMC to drop the electronic attack mission for a period of time, which would result in a catastrophic capability and experience drain from the USMC’s ‘air force in a box’ mentality.
I would not doubt that some in the F-35 program would actually lobby for future Prowler funds to be allocated to the F-35 program, as they may claim the stealthy jet provides some degree of self-escort electronic attack capability, and with stealth, further standoff electronic attack is not needed. Such a decision would be asinine, but not out of the realm of possibility these days.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com