When Hornets Growl
The new, supersonic face of e-warfare.
- By D.C. Agle
- Air & Space magazine, March 2011
(Page 3 of 4)
Which was good news for the homely EA-6B Prowler, the U.S. Navy’s primary jammer since 1971. The airplane, a Grumman A-6 Intruder stretched 4.5 feet and equipped with two more electronic warfare officers in shoulder-to-shoulder back seats, ripples with tumor-like bulges and pods housing the airplane’s jamming equipment. The subsonic Prowler, first flown in May 1968, had electronics that were tailored to counter Soviet-built radar stations launching the Mach 3.5 SA-2 radar-guided missiles that, early in the Vietnam conflict, were downing U.S. Air Force pilots in alarming numbers—one American airplane lost for every two SA-2s fired.
John McCarty, a tour guide and gallery lead at the National Electronics Museum in Washington, D.C., worked for Westinghouse in the Vietnam years developing electronic countermeasures. On visits to South Vietnam, he watched as strike groups returned to base missing airplanes downed by SA-2s. “Pilots made it clear that they would rather have a 500-pound bomb to drop than a piece of mysterious equipment hanging on a wing,” says McCarty. “But afterward they started seeing that aircraft flying with our jamming pods were returning and those [without] were not coming back as often, so the conclusion became obvious.” The Navy began calling up every jammer it could get.
“We had done our workups in preparation to go to the Mediterranean,” says Bob Pettyjohn, a retired Navy captain and Prowler pilot aboard the carrier America. “Ten days before we left, the Navy said, ‘Whoa, not so fast! You’re going to Vietnam.’ Well, the other guys on the boat weren’t too happy about the change in plans, with the exception of the two Phantom fighter squadrons aboard ship who looked at us as the biggest MiG bait ever to come down the pike.
“The first flight we flew over there in the Prowler, when we turned on the jammers, every radar in North Vietnam lit up. They had never seen anything like the Prowler.”
Once on station, Prowler crews found themselves flying at all hours. “They would have a carrier flying noon-to-midnight cycles, and another from midnight to noon,” says Pettyjohn. “The idea was you could shut everything down and people could get some sleep. But since we were covering everybody, they would sometimes have to get up in the middle of the night just to launch one of our airplanes. So the America didn’t like us. I can remember one night blasting off the America at three o’clock in the morning to cover the B-52s. We get airborne and I look in the rearview mirror and see all the lights go off. They were happy we were gone so they could go back to sleep.”
Night and day, the Prowler built up a reputation as crucial to a strike group’s ability to penetrate North Vietnamese air defenses. “I can gladly and gratefully attest to the incredible effectiveness of the Prowlers,” says former space shuttle commander Michael Coats, who flew the Ling-Temco-Vought A-7 Corsair II in Vietnam. “They were fantastic, and a combat pilot’s best friend in a high-threat environment.”
By 2016, the 93 Prowlers still flying (170 were built between 1968 and 1991) will be either the property of the Marine Corps, which plans to fly them until at least 2019, or decommissioned, with a few ending up on a pole in front of an airfield.
“IN THE PROWLER, you had four guys working an older weapon system,” explains Eric Sinibaldi. “Now, with only two guys in the Growler with a newer weapon system, it requires both to be really on the same page to fight the jet.”
Some have joked that the pilot in the EA-6B was just a chauffeur. No one can say that of the Growler. Integrating the pilot into the electronic attack mission involved more than 200 Prowler pilots and electronic warfare officers running numerous missions in the Growler simulator at Boeing’s St. Louis facility. This revealed that it takes a lot more automation, as well as advanced cockpit displays that clearly present critical data, to get two people to do the work of four. “I think it’s fair to say they tend to be a different breed of cat,” says Captain John Green of e-warfare crews. Green runs the Navy’s airborne electronic attack program at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland. “If the average brain is 14 pounds, maybe Prowler and Growler guys are 16.”