USMC EA-6A ‘Electric Intruder’ was the most capable electronic warfare aircraft of the conflict
Grumman’s A-6 Intruder was the ‘Main Battery’ of carrier aviation throughout the Vietnam War. It represented the most capable medium attack aircraft in-theatre for the entire conflict, being capable of striking targets with a heavy load of ordnance in almost any weather condition.
The U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) also deployed four Intruder squadrons to the war zone from both the beach and carrier decks, with excellent results. Indeed, their EA-6A ‘Electric Intruder’ was the most capable electronic warfare aircraft of the conflict.
From the mid-1950s the Marines’ reconnaissance and Electronic Warfare (EW) capability was found in three Composite squadrons, VMCJ-1, VMCJ-2 and VMCJ-3. One was assigned to each Marine Aircraft Wing and, at the start of the Vietnam War, they were equipped with a mix of photo (RF-8A Crusader) and EW (EF-10B Skyknight) aircraft.
As explained by Rick Morgan in his book A-6 Intruder Units of the Vietnam War, VMCJ-1 introduced the EA-6A to Da Nang in October 1966 and immediately started supplementing its EF-10s, which, due to demand, remained in-theatre until 1969. With little time to acclimate, the ‘Electric Intruder’ went right into the breech, as operations were quick from the start. On the night of 2/3 December 1966 the squadron put an unprecedented nine jamming aircraft into the air (six EF-10Bs and three EA-6As) to support major U.S. Navy strikes. By January 1967 it had four EA-6As at Da Nang, and they were heavily involved over North Vietnam as the most capable EW platform in-theatre.
For its weapon system the EA-6A was initially equipped with the ALQ-31 pod, a long, odd-looking contraption that contained a pair of ALT-6B jammers. This was soon followed by the ALQ-76 pod, which featured a Ram Air Turbine (RAT) that spun in the air stream to provide power for four transmitters, each of which had an independently steered directional antenna. The system was highly sophisticated for the era, as most jamming systems (such as those carried by the USAF’s EB-66B) were omni-directional, transmitting their jamming signal in a 360-degree fashion and not focusing it directionally at the threat radar.
This system allowed the EA-6A to potentially carry up to 20 high-powered directional jammers, giving the aircraft the widest frequency coverage of any electronic attack platform in-theatre. The ALQ-76’s basic design set the standard for the later ALQ-99 system used in the EA-6B.
In practice the aircraft carried three ALQ-76s, a pair of fuel tanks and ALE-32 chaff pods on its outboard wing stations. The EA-6A also used an internal VHF-band ALQ-55 communications jammer that could complicate and confuse voice links between North Vietnamese fighter pilots and their ground control intercept (GCI) stations, but only when crews were given permission to use it.
The EA-6A was easily the most capable EW aircraft of the entire war, proving much more capable than the EF-10B it replaced, as well as being much more survivable than the USAF EB-66 or U.S. Navy EKA-3B jammers. Even when the latter service introduced the EA-6B in 1972, the Marines’ ‘Electric Intruder’ still possessed roughly 30 per cent greater frequency range than the Standard-version Prowler, although the latter’s developmental plan would take care of that issue in short fashion. The EA-613’s ALQ-99 jamming pods were also capable of generating a significantly higher amount of radiated power than the ALQ-76s carried by the A-model.
1Lt Ted Herman was among the VMCJ-1’s Naval Aviators detached to Da Nang in 1971 to support operations against North Vietnamese in Laos. He had earned his ‘Wings of Gold’ in August 1969 and received, orders directly to VMCJ-2 in Cherry Point for EA-6A training. Seven months later he was flown to Japan, where he reported to VMCJ-1. Herman recalled;
`The squadron was really talented and the two groups, EW (EA-6A) and recon (RF-4B) got along pretty well together. Along with the NFOs, we still had a core of very experienced senior enlisted men, and warrant officers flying right-seaters. They really knew their business. The transits from Iwakuni were more than six hours long, with fuel stops at Naha (Okinawa) and Cubi Point.
`The April/May trip included ESM flights that were launched from Da Nang, where we checked out with “Icepick” (the Marine controllers at Marble Mountain) and then ran off up the coast, where we’d report Red Crown (controllers on board a U.S. Navy frigate) for following, before we’d turn due west near the DMZ. From there we’d parallel the Laos/ North Vietnamese border up to about Vinh, looking for signals to analyse.
`While on the route we’d be under the eye of the USAF out of Nakhon Phanom. Once on track the EWO would have his head in the boot working the receiver system, calling bearings and other pertinent rat parametrics, which I’d write down while noting the time and location.
`These flights almost became routine, although sometimes you’d be busy — we’d occasionally hear a “Fan Song” for instance. Most of the time you could’ve read a novel if you wanted. We’d also cover strikes on – trails and observe U.S. Navy A-7s or USAF F-4s dropping bombs, which could be pretty spectacular at night. Nothing came close to watching a B-52 Arc Light strike though.
`The return trip was in reverse, and we’d turn in all of our data after landing — which was usually about three to three-and-a-half hours after launch — for intel to evaluate.’
Photo credit: Staff Sergeant Jomp, USMC and U.S. Air Force
Artwork courtesy of AircraftProfilePrints.com
A-6 Intruder Units of the Vietnam War is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.