The Navy's Still Jammin'

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The Navy has recently awarded a $6.8 million contract to Northrop Grumman to upgrade another three EA-6B Prowler electronic attack aircraft, with a $2 million option for a fourth. The firm has already upgraded 12 Prowlers with the Improved Capability III kits that provide a new crew workstation display and new radar threat detection receiver, among other hardware and software improvements.

These modifications are expected to extend the aircrafts usefulness to 2018. By that time the Navy will be flying the Prowlers replacement, the Boeing/McDonnell Douglas EA-18G Growler, developed from the F/A-18F Super Hornet strike fighter. Significantly, the Marine Corps will continue to fly the EA-6B in the electronic attack role after the Navy has shifted completely to the EA-18G. Rather, the Marines appear to be waiting for an electronic attack variant of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), recently named the Lightning II.

Today the EA-6B is the only electronic attack aircraft flown by the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. Navy and Marine Prowler squadrons provide Electronic Warfare(EW) support for the Air Force, with Air Force crewmen flying in those aircraft alongside naval aviators.

(The Air Force is believed to be resurrecting a proposed standoff jammer/EW program centered on the venerable B-52 Stratofortress. The last specialized, electronic attack/countermeasures aircraft flown by the Air Force was the EF-111A Raven, which was phased out of service in May 1998. While their EW threat and countermeasures capabilities were similar, the EA-6B was a slower aircraft, but carried three systems operators compared to one in the EF-111A, and could launch anti-radar missiles, which the EF-111A could not.)

The EA-6B Prowler was derived from the Grumman A-6 Intruder all-weather attack aircraft, flown by the Navy and Marine Corps from 1963 to 1996. The specialized, enlarged EA-6B entered Navy-Marine Corps service in 1971. Although the attack and tanker (KA-6D) variants of the Intruder have long been retired, the services continue to operate, support, and upgrade the EA-6B variant, which is flown from all 11 Navy aircraft carriers as well as from land bases. (Marine EA-6Bs have periodically flown from carriers.)

While there could be an electric attack variant of the F-35 JSF, some military officers as well as aviation industry specialists predict that the next-generation electronic countermeasures/attack aircraft will be unmanned -- an EUAV unmanned aerial vehicle that could penetrate and attack enemy air defenses.

-- Norman Polmar

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