Banging Trons in the Open

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We posted on our sister site at Military.com a story today about the use of EA-6B Prowlers to counter the improvised explosive device threat in Iraq.

This is significant because it marks the first time the story has made it out into the open press. Those of us who have embedded in both Iraq and Afghanistan over the years knew about this powerful counter-IED technology, but we refrained from reporting on it at the request of commanders who didnt want the secret mission out in the open.

It was the spring of 2004, when I was in Bagram, Afghanistan, that I first saw the Prowlers in action. I remember asking the Army PAO there whether I could do a story about the fact that EA-6Bs were deployed there the first time Id seen such aircraft in The Stan.

The PAO looked me straight in the eye and said, what Prowlers?

I countered: Those four sitting right there next to the 160th birds (referring to the imposing, black-painted spec ops MH-47s lined up along the tarmac).

There are no Prowlers here, he said, making me think of the famous Obi Wan line these are not the droids youre looking for

There are no Prowlers here, is said robotically.

For nearly two years I and other reporters I know who knew wanted to tell this story. At one point, a colleague of mine reported on the issue based on statements from a Prowler driver at a conference of Old Crows. He was quickly slapped down by his command, and the Navy pleaded with our publication to pull the story.

Later, in Iraq, it was known as banging trons. Prowlers would orbit during night patrols, using their powerful electronic jamming gear to run through the spectrum in hopes of detonating IEDs while bomb layers were planting them. This was known to happen on more than a few occasions.

Wising up, but probably unaware of what was causing the mysterious detonations, the bad guys switched to command detonated IEDs or pressure plate set-ups. The best way to counter these, interestingly enough, were snipers watch, wait and pick them off while theyre planting them in the road.

Still, the most popular triggering device at least back in 06 was the larger signaled chordless phone system that existed before Iraq had a widespread cellular network. Most houses had a powerful antenna on the roof with a Senao base station that could transmit phone signals to great distances. It makes sense that Prowlers can intercept or imitate these too.

Its good to see a normally secretive community get its day in the sun. I wonder if the commander quoted in the story really knew this issue would hit the mainstream. This tactic is an important tool to the boots on the ground operators, and surely with the introduction of EA-18G Growler incorporating an impressive suit of wiz-bang jamming and active electronic warfare gear the mission will continue to good effect.

-- Christian

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