U.S. Navy

The A-6F, the A-12 and the End of the Intruder Community

Now the mention of the Intruder still frequently elicits remarks like ‘retired too soon’ and ‘wish it was still in the Fleet’.

The US Navy’s Medium Attack community was riding high after Desert Storm, having successfully participated in the most extensive combat operations conducted by US forces since Vietnam. What they did not know was that they were only a few years from extinction as a distinct part of Naval Aviation — although it was not for a lack of trying to find a successor to the A-6E.

The A-6F Intruder in fact was to have been an advanced version of the A-6E, initially known as the A-6E Upgrade. A contract was issued in July 1984, and it was anticipated that the A-6F would be the principal medium attack aircraft in the Fleet in the 1990s. The A-6E Upgrade was to have been virtually a new design, using most of the components of the A-6E but with new radar, a digital avionics suite, improved engines, the epoxy /composite Boeing wing, and additional weapons stations.

The plane was to have been powered by a pair of General Electric F404-GE-400D turbofans, which were to be smokeless. A third offensive weapons rack was to be added underneath each wing. A new Norden synthetic aperture radar (sometimes known as AN/APQ-173) was to be fitted, and the aircraft was to be capable of carrying the AIM-120A AMRAAM air-to-air missile, which would have given the Intruder an air-to-air capability.

Five full-scale development A-6Fs were ordered. They were diverted from a batch of A-6Es (BuNos 162183/162187), and were known as “Intruder II”. They were fitted with Grumman metal wings, since the Boeing composite wings were not yet ready. BuNo 163183 was the aerodynamic and propulsion test vehicle and flew for the first time on Aug. 26, 1987, with Harry Hentx and Dave Goulette at the controls. BuNo 162184 followed on Nov. 23. 162185 was the Digital Systems Development aircraft and was used as the test bed for the AN/APQ-173 radar and other advanced avionics systems, and flew for the first time on Aug. 22, 1988. However, by this time, the A-6F project had been cancelled, and the last two A-6Fs had already been mothballed without being flown. Budgetary constraints were cited as the reason for the cancellation, but the real reason was probably the existence of the Advanced Tactical Aircraft (ATA) stealth attack aircraft project.

Being highly classified, speculation was officially discouraged, yet that only encouraged a serious whisper campaign in ready rooms and at the bar as to what it would look like and what it would do. The design was finally unveiled as the A-12 Avenger II at the September 1990 Tailhook Reunion in Las Vegas, and it turned out to be a large, tailless delta aircraft with tandem seats under a long, clear canopy. Initial reaction was mixed, probably due to its unusual design. The latter was certainly radical — probably the most radical seen in the carrier business since the 1950s-era Vought F7U Cutlass. The contracting team was McDonnell Douglas out of St Louis, Missouri, and General Dynamics from Fort Worth, Texas. What was obvious was that the design optimised low observability, or ‘Stealth’, which was something the service knew it had to get into — a point that had been known since the USAF’s 1988 public release of its F-117 ‘Stealth Fighter’.

And then, as told by Rick Morgan in his book A-6 Intruder Units 1974-96, the floor dropped out.

On Jan. 7, 1991, a week before the start of Desert Storm, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney ordered the A-12 program to be cancelled for ‘breach of contract’. Legal details aside, it was now obvious that the A-6 did not have an apparent successor. Throughout this period Intruders continued to deploy as part of every carrier that left CONUS. The last one built, A-6E SWIP BuNo 164385, rolled out of Calverton on Jan. 31, 1992, ending 33 years of production of ‘the Mighty Tadpole’. This historic airframe lasted barely 18 months, being lost on Sep. 8, 1993 in a mid-air collision while deployed with VA-95 on board CVN-72. While all four aircrew ejected, both jets (the other being BuNo 161682) went to the bottom of the Persian Gulf.

This model is available from AirModels – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS

In the fleet, operations remained focused on post-war Iraq, for although Kuwait had been liberated, Saddam Hussein remained in control of his country and had to be watched. The result was Operations Southern Witch and Northern Watch, where large portions of Iraq were ruled as `no-fly zones’ that were enforced by Allied aircraft operating from Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf or (from the north) Incirlik, in Turkey. Intruders were heavily involved in these missions, working off the carriers that spent time in the Gulf and occasionally carrying out attacks on Iraqi units that fired on them. On Jan. 23, 1993, for example, CVW-15 aircraft flying from USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70), including VA-52 A-6Es and a pair of F/A-18As, bombed AAA sites in Iraq as part of Southern Watch. This was almost certainly the last time an Intruder dropped ordnance ‘in anger’.

The 1993 Nimitz deployment to WestPac and the ‘I0’ was also the last cruise for the KA-6D version, VA-165 (as part of CVW-9) taking several with it and retiring the series upon return. From this point the A-6E SWIP would be the primary model, and ‘bombers’ equipped with buddy stores would carry the weight of tanking alongside air wing S-3Bs.

In the US Marine Corps, conversion of the remaining Intruder units to le new F/A-18D was in full swing. It was up to the Moonlighters’ of VMA(AW)-332 to finally retire the Intruder from Marine service in June 1993. It was the end of the small, but powerful, Marine All Weather Attack community, dating from October 1964 when VMA-242 had turned in its A-4C Skyhawks for the then new Grumman Intruder.

This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. A-6E Intruder VA-35 Black Panthers, AJ502 / 151582 / 1977

Back in the US Navy, if the future was not already obvious to some, it started being laid out as squadrons were rapidly disestablished. First to go was VA-185, in August 1991. Any remaining doubt as to where the Medium Attack community was headed ended in mid-1992 during an event held at Whidbey. The US Navy’s senior aviator, Vice Adm Dick Dunleavy (as OPNAV OP-05 — he had previously been an A-6 B/N and CO of VA-176), told a stunned crowd at the base theatre that Medium Attack was finished and would eventually be rolled up into the rapidly growing Strike Fighter (VFA) community. As bad as that shock was to the Intruder crowd, not known at this point was that new, larger versions of the Hornet that were being planned (eventually called Super Hornets) would me consume both the VF and VS communities as well.

More squadrons were rapidly disestablished — VA-176 did not see the end of 1992, while stablemates VA-155 and -145 went the following year and 1994 saw the demise of VA-36 and -85. 1995 witnessed VA-35, -52 and -95 casing their colours as well.

1994 had also seen the end of the two Naval Reserve Medium Attack units (VA-304 and -205).

1996 dawned with only five Intruder units left in the US Navy. While the ‘Boomers’ of VA-165 would get the axe, two outfits, VA-34 and -115, were selected for transition to F/A-18Cs, becoming VFA units in the change. Which left VA-75 at Oceana and Whidbey’s VA-196 as the last two standing. The ‘Main Battery’ had returned from its last deployment on Nov. 13, 1996, flying off of Carl Vinson and saying goodbye to CVW-14, with which it had performed all but one of its 17 major deployments. The fabled `Sunday Punchers’ wheeled into the pattern at Oceana off of Enterprise on Dec. 19, having completed their final deployment with CVW-17. It was fitting that VA-75, the first Intruder squadron to deploy (in May 1965, and directly into combat), would be the last one.

The two squadrons’ disestablishment ceremonies were held on the same day, Feb. 28, 1997. Befitting Naval Aviation, there was a little gamesmanship here, however, as both squadrons arranged for ‘last minute’ carrier qualification periods in order to establish which unit could claim `the Last Intruder Trap’. The ‘Milestones’ found a ready deck on Carl Vinson on Feb. 12-13 — this time the ship was working within sight of Whidbey in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Not to be outdone, the ‘Punchers’ managed to snag an invite from Enterprise and worked the ship’s day pattern with two jets on Mar. 12, 12 days after their official disestablishment. A week later the last squadron CO, Cdr Jim Gigliotti, led the final section of A-6s to the boneyard in Tucson, Arizona.

Two U.S. Navy Grumman A-6A Intruder aircraft (BuNo 154148, 154155) from Attack Squadron 196 (VA-196) “Main Battery” dropping Mk 82 227 kg (500 lbs) bombs over Vietnam.

It was truly the end of an era.

The hole the loss of the Intruder made in the air wing’s combat capability was huge. CVWs initially added another Hornet squadron, but that hardly improved precision strike and persistence capabilities. The rapid modification of the F-14 to a strike platform went a long way to make up for the lack of true Medium Attack, but, according to supporters, did not address the ‘all weather’ or range benefits the A-6 provided, let alone the value the aircraft gave as a tanker. Many of the men who flew Intruders went on to other aircraft, including Tomcats, Hornets and Prowlers. A number of them have continued to excel and rise to high leadership positions in the US Navy, and in the process have helped keep the ‘Spirit of Medium Attack’ alive and well in the service.

Now the mention of the Intruder still frequently elicits remarks like ‘retired too soon’ and ‘wish it was still in the Fleet’.

A-6 Intruder Units 1974-96 is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

Artwork courtesy of AircraftProfilePrints.com

Photo credit: U.S. Navy

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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