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.
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, the Prowler was a result of efforts to integrate electronic warfare aircraft into the carrier airwing. The original variant, EA-6A, was developed during the Vietnam War, and comprised a converted Grumman A-6A Intruder two-seat bomber, fitted with more than 30 different antennae for monitoring, classifying, recording, jamming and deceiving enemy radar transmissions. Three A-6As served as development aircraft for the EA-6B. The EA-6B Prowler appeared towards the end of the same conflict beginning 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.
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.”
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
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