When Hornets Growl

The new, supersonic face of e-warfare

No soft underbelly here: The EA-18G Growler hauls missiles, fuel tanks, and electronic warfare pods. (Ted Carlson/Fotodynamics)
Air & Space Magazine

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“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.”

The Prowler’s steam gauges and thumb wheels have been replaced in the Growler with digital, flat-panel displays. And compared to the two-seat F/A-18F Super Hornet, a fully loaded G is 1,400 pounds heavier, with 66 more antennas, an additional half-mile of wiring, and 1.5 million more lines of software code. A Link 16 data exchange network lets the Growler send and receive data with other airplanes on the fly, allowing Growler crews to effectively “peer over the shoulders” of other airplanes in the strike group in real time to see what their radars and other data gathering systems see. The crewmen wear helmet-mounted cueing systems that display targets and flight data on the inside of the visor to enhance their head-up awareness (see “Hard Hat Zone,” Then & Now, Aug./Sept. 2008). The Growler’s electronic countermeasures system, called Improved Capabilities (ICAP) III, was originally deployed on the Prowler. To make ICAP III work in the Growler, engineers had to reconfigure its ALQ-218 jammer. The system’s main receiver, called the “football” when it was perched like the Super Bowl trophy atop the Prowler’s vertical tail, has been split into a pair of sleeker antennas, one on each of the Growler’s wingtips. Rounded off at the front and back, the receivers have the same weight and center of gravity—but slightly higher drag—as the AIM-9 air-to-air missiles that Super Hornets carry there. Because its brawny electronics had to go somewhere, the ALQ-218 also robbed the Growler of its 20-millimeter Vulcan cannon. Still, the G carries air-to-surface missiles to take out radar dishes and other emitters, and air-to-air missiles to confront airborne threats.

With its wingtips occupied by the new antennas, the Growler still has nine external points for pods, fuel tanks, and missiles (see p. 44). The most recognizable payloads are the detachable ALQ-99 jammer pods, each with a ram air turbine, a passive mini-propeller on the nose of the unit that spins in the slipstream to generate its electricity. The innards of the 15-foot-long, canoe-shaped devices have been updated several times since their introduction. The pods limit the Growler’s speed, but chances are, with an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar that reportedly can see 200-plus miles, the crew won’t get surprised by even a high-speed adversary.

The Growler hasn’t had time to compile a track record, and the Navy isn’t saying when it might deploy to Afghanistan. In one of the world’s poorest countries, where there are virtually no enemy missiles or anti-aircraft radars, the EA-18G might be a bit overqualified. But it can jam a Taliban cell phone call, or a signal from an electric garage-door opener intended to set off a roadside bomb. Some reports on the ground say that EA-6B Prowlers can now do “courtesy burns,” pre-flying the route of a truck convoy, emitting electrons all along to trigger buried explosives. The Navy offers no comment on such a capability.


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