Two hours north of Seattle, Washington, at the eastern end of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the entrance to Puget Sound is guarded by a citadel dedicated to the aerial mastery and manipulation of one of the universe’s fundamental particles—the electron. The site, Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, was originally envisioned as little more than a waypoint for patrol aircraft scanning the Sound for invaders in World War II.
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Today, the station has evolved into the headquarters for the Navy’s airborne electronic attack mission, a shadow world where the electromagnetic spectrum—the range of radiation frequencies—is the battlefield, and jets firing radio waves, microwaves, and infrared waves instead of bullets can wreak havoc without a trace. Now, as the Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet morphs into the EA-18G Growler, the Navy’s e-warfare capability has gone into afterburner.
In electronic warfare, various pods and antennas on an airplane send and receive these high-powered electromagnetic signals to disrupt, suppress, or disable an enemy’s radar-based defenses and communications networks. Called aerial electronic jamming, the practice can make a flight of attack airplanes accompanied by a Growler vanish from enemy radar screens in a storm of disorienting electromagnetic noise, like an orchestra drowning out a bugle. Or a Growler can slouch into passive mode, eavesdropping on the enemy for extended periods to gather intelligence.
For some 40 years, those at Whidbey have been practicing the black art of jamming from inside the cockpit of Grumman’s drumstick-shaped EA-6B Prowler. But that aircraft, which flummoxed a generation of enemy radar operators in Vietnam, is aged, overbooked, maintenance-needy, and downright slow.
In 2009, the first operational squadron of EA-18G Growlers, the Prowlers’ successors, began tearing through the skies around Whidbey. By the end of 2014, the Navy plans to take delivery of 114 Growlers. At $67 million each, the G comes with a lot of bells and whistles.
The electronic attack community likes the Growler’s speed and its ability to fly from either airfield or carrier deck. Pilots like the fact that it will be able to stand back and jam for other airplanes, called standoff jamming; or, because it’s able to keep up with Super Hornets, that it will provide modified escort jamming in almost all phases of an attack mission, targeting in particular an adversary’s airborne and ground-based anti-aircraft missile capabilities. And everyone likes the cut of its jib. The Growler has the DNA of a fighter, so it is more suited to a Hollywood closeup than its bulbous and blistered predecessor.
Yet those who fly the Growler for the “Scorpions” of VAQ-132 at Whidbey, the first operational squadron, know their place in the world: below the radar. “Oh, we’ll never have a Top Gun movie made about us,” says Lieutenant Commander Eric Sinibaldi, a Scorpion electronic warfare officer. “The problem we have as electronic attack guys is there is no kinetic. You don’t see a bomb blow up.” The only way to confirm how e-warfare methods worked in a given scenario would be to ask the enemy what effects he witnessed.
Jack Dailey, a retired Marine Corps general and the director of the National Air and Space Museum, flew McDonnell RF-4s and jammers in Vietnam, including the Grumman EA-6A, the two-seat e-warfare precursor to the four-seat EA-6B. He also flew the Douglas EF-10B Skyknight, an e-warfare version of the F3D. He confirms that the work was quiet but very intense. “The mission was classified so nobody knew what we did,” he says, a fact largely true of the Growler’s mission now. “We had a song we sang: ‘We’re the senior squadron in the East, we fly the most but we do the least.’ And we did fly a lot. Always airborne, always orbiting, always watching.”
From Allied landings on D-Day to NATO’s bombing campaign in Kosovo in 1999 to the Israeli air force’s reported successful targeting of a Syrian nuclear facility in 2007, militaries that have manipulated the electronic spectrum have had a major advantage.
“If [e-warfare aircraft] are not airborne to support the strike, the strike does not go,” says Commander Jeff Craig, the Scorpions’ commanding officer. “Guys are recognizing the threat today is much more diverse.”