Prowler Association

Airborne Electronic Attack

A Short History of U.S. Navy Airborne Electronic Attack

Navy carrier-based Electronic Attack dates from World War II and has since become a critical part of strike warfare from the sea.

The rapid rise in the use of radar and radio technologyduring the war quickly led to the parallel development of “Radio Countermeasures” to deny these systems to the enemy. Among the pioneering efforts was the modification of TBM-3D Avenger torpedo bombers by Night Air Group NINETY (CAG-N-90) embarked in the USS Enterprise (CV 6) in late 1944 and through 1945. The Group equipped Avengers with simple jammers and a manual chaff-dispensing system intended to disrupt Japanese search and anti-aircraft radars.Their success, and the work of others, led to the Navy codifying the new mission with the Q(or “Queen”, from the phonetic alphabet of the period) suffix in November 1945, with modified Avengers now being called TBM-3Q. The letter “Q” has been used ever since to signify Navy aircraft and squadrons with an Electronic Warfare role.

The small number of “Queen” Avengers was replaced in the fleet during the late 1940s by new Electronic Warfare-configured Douglas AD Skyraiders and Martin AM Maulers.Both types included EW variants, AD-1Q and AM-1Q, with a single enlisted man buried in the fuselage controlling a system very similar to that in the TBM-3Q. These were true “Electronic Attack” aircraft as they retained the same ordnance-carrying ability of their single-seat counterparts.

While the troubledMauler was a dead end, the remarkable Skyraider series continued through the early 1950s, producing 119 EW airframeswith sequential designations, AD-2Q, -3Q and -4Q. One or two were typically assigned to each Air Group during the Korean War; conducting surveillance, jamming and chaff laying for Air Groups, largely against Soviet-built fire-control radars; many of which were actually derived from U.S. supplied lend-lease systems during WWII.

The four-place (two officers, two enlisted operators) AD-5Q Skyraider was introduced in 1956 as a modification of the existing AD-5N night attack aircraft. 59 were procured with three or four aircraft detachments being assigned to most Air Groups. Through it all, however, the Navy continued to view EW as a secondary mission, with AD-5Qs being assigned to either Airborne Early Warning (VAW) or Night Attack (VAAW) squadrons while based ashore.

By the start of the Vietnam War deploying EA-1Fs (as the AD-5Q was redesignated in 1962) were based in two squadrons, with one on each coast. The Atlantic Fleet’s aircraft flew with the Night Hawks of VAW-33 from NAS Quonset Point, RI while the Pacific force used the Alameda-based Zappers of VAW-13, who supplied the initial carrier-based EW capability in Vietnam.Both squadrons would supply EA-1F dets that provided jamming support for strikes into North Vietnam through 1969.

As the electronic threat, particularly from Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMs) increased in South East Asia the Navy modified 39 Douglas A-3B Skywarriors into a combination jammer/tanker platform designated the EKA-3B. First deployed in 1967, this three-seat “Whale” formed the basis for a massive reorganization of the carrier-based EW force whenin 1968-69 the service finally recognized Electronic Warfare as its own warfare area by growing from just one unit, VAW-13, into six separate Tactical Electronic Warfare (VAQ) Squadrons, now designated VAQ-130 through -135.

The delivery of the first Grumman EA-6B Prowler to Whidbey Island Washington in 1971 signaled yet another major development in the Navy’s EW force as the service moved all of its carrier-based active EW force to one location. The Prowler completely replaced the EKA-3B by 1974, although the distinct EA-3B electronic reconnaissance version, used by VQ units, remained in service through 1991.

170 Prowlers were eventually built by Grumman, with the Navy aggressively working to keep the design up to date through a series of improvements called EXCAP, ICAP, ICAPII and ICAP III. The aircraft eventually served in 18 Navy squadrons as well as four in the Marine Corps.

Over its 40+ years of Navy service the EA-6B established itself as the most significant EA aircraft in history as it flew and fought in a number of wars, strikes and fracases where its unique capabilities and highly trained aircrew set a high bar for excellence in Electronic Warfare. In 1996 the Prowler took over duties as the only joint tactical EA platform as well, replacing the Air Force’s EF-111A Raven in the role.In combat until the end; the classic Prowler was retired by the Navy in 2015 and is currently scheduled to remain in service with the Marine Corps through 2019.

Navy electronic attack is now ably represented by the Boeing EA-18G Growler. First delivered to Whidbey Island in 2009, the Growlerhas already established itself as the new world standard for the EW business. It has since deployed worldwide and will be delivered to the Royal Australian Air Force in 2016 as well.

The Marines entered the airborne electronic warfare business during the Korean War with the acquisition of a small number of TBM-3Q Avengers and AD-1/2Q Skyraiders from the Navy. The Corps’ interest in EW rapidly increased and in 1955 they introduced the Douglas F3D-2Q into the inventory as the first jet-powered jamming aircraft in the world.

The F3D Skyknight was a two-seat night fighter that had gained fame in Korea for its work escorting USAF B-29s against MiG-15s. The EW version carried a system very similar to the Navy’s AD-5Q; 34 were produced and deployed with the service’s three Composite Reconnaissance Squadrons (VMCJ), where they shared they were operated alongside photo-reconnaissance aircraft. “Willie the Whale”, as it was called, flew combat with VMCJ-1 out of Da Nang Vietnam from 1965 through 1969, providing critical jamming support for strikes throughout the North.

In 1965 the Marines introduced an EW variant of the Grumman Intruder, in the form of the EA-6A. The “Electric Intruder” still carried two men and entered combat in 1966 as the most capable EW aircraft used during the war. 27 EA-6As were procured with the type also deploying with VMCJ-1 as a member of Carrier Air Wing-FIVE onboard the Midway from 1973 to 1978.

In 1975 the Marines reorganized their VMCJ squadrons into separate photo-recon and EW entities with Marine Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron-TWO (VMAQ-2Playboys, the former VMCJ-2) being based at Cherry Point NC with all of the service’s EA-6As. Two years later the unit started transition to the EA-6B Prowler and began supplying detachments to Iwakuni Japan as well as the occasional Carrier Air Wing. Over the years VMAQ-2 would make major deployments with the Midway, Nimitz, Independence and America.

In 1990 the Playboyssent12 Prowlers to Shaikh Isa air base in Bahrain and subsequently flew combat during Operation Desert Storm. The following year the VMAQ-2 was cloned into two additional units, with a pair of its detachments becoming VMAQ-1 and VMAQ-3 while Marine Reserve squadron VMAQ-4 was activated and moved to Cherry Point.

These four squadrons have since continued the Marines tradition of EW excellence in both war and peace through multiple deployments world-wide. In 2014 VMAQ-1 was redesignated as VMAQT-1, taking over EA-6B training duties from the Navy. Current Marine plans are to retire the Prowler in 2019.