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The EA-6B Prowler
In 1960, as part of the development of the new A2F (later A-6) Intruder all-weather attack aircraft, Grumman engineers began evaluating an ECM version of the airplane. The result was the EA-6A Intruder, which entered service in Marine Corps squadrons in December 1965. Concurrently, Grumman developed a Tactical Jamming System and defined the requirements for the airplane to serve as a platform for it. The result was the EA-6B Prowler, which built upon the success of the EA-6A, but differed in some respects including size to incorporate a four-man crew consisting of one pilot and three electronic counter-measures officers (ECMO).
The first Prowlers arrived at VAQ-129 at NAS Whidbey Island, WA, in December 1971, and the initial fleet squadrons equipped with the new airplane flew combat missions over North Vietnam as part of Operations Linebacker I and II. This began a lengthy service that lasted over four decades with the Prowler developing into the foremost electronic attack platform in the US military arsenal, supporting combat missions in Grenada, Lebanon, Libya, Iraq, Bosnia, and Afghanistan and other crises around the world.
While many assessments about what specific aircraft types can or cannot do are based on experiences from realistic exercises, there are always crucial areas of performance that can never be ‘tested’ in peace. One of these was the full power and capabilities of the ‘music’ — electronic warfare emissions — deployed by aircraft like the Grumman EA-6B Prowler.
According to the National Naval Aviation Museum a summary of air operations in Operation Desert Storm in 1991 captured the importance of the EA-6B. “Critical to the success of all aviation missions was the role of electronic countermeasures “jamming” or “defense suppression” aircraft. Navy EA-6B Prowlers determined threat location then jammed and destroyed enemy radars. Navy defense suppression aircraft supported all U.S. and coalition forces— in fact, availability of the EA-6Bs was a go/no-go criterion for many strike missions. If Navy defense suppression wasn’t available, the missions didn’t fly.”
EA-6B ALQ-99 jamming pods emissions
As explained by Tom Cooper in his book In the Claws of the Tomcat: US Navy F-14 Tomcats in Air Combat against Iran and Iraq, 1987-2000, compared to the EA-6A the EA-6B was a major step forward. It included a stretched fuselage with a cockpit for four crewmembers: pilot, ECM-officer (who managed navigation, communications, defensive ECM and the dispensing of chaff), and two electronic warfare operators (EWOs). The Prowler came together with much improved and more powerful equipment centred on up to five ALQ-99 high-power tactical jamming pods. While one of these was installed in an aerodynamic shape atop the fin, the other four were carried underwing and included windmill generators to supply their power requirements.
As of 1990-1991, the US Navy had one electronic warfare squadron of four EA-6Bs for each of its CVWs. However, their crews were prohibited from deploying the full power of ALQ-99 during peacetime exercises. Thus, the first time they went into a war – against Iraq, on Jan. 17, 1991 – some of their potential took everybody by surprise. It turned out that when ‘cut loose’, the Prowlers caused the radar homing and warning (system) RHAW gear of F-14s to literally go crazy, and jammed not only their own IFF-signals, but also much of the radio communications. Indeed, a subsequent investigation revealed that their emissions were one of the principal reasons for communication problems experienced by multiple Navy formations underway over Iraq on the first day of the war.
In the Claws of the Tomcat: US Navy F-14 Tomcats in Air Combat against Iran and Iraq, 1987-2000 is published by Helion & Company and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Navy