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The Growlers Are Coming Out to Play.

In just a few months, the first electronic attack versions of Boeing's F/A-18 fighter jet will make their way to Whidbey Island in Washington State.

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The EA-18G will have state-of-the-art jammers and communications gear, as well as an arsenal of missiles and bombs, Boeing and Navy officials said this week at the Navy League conference. The Navy plans to buy about 80 Growlers, at a cost of roughly $8.7 billion, according to the official program plans.

The new jets will replace the aging EA-6B Prowler fleet, which pilots say is much harder to land on a carrier than its brand-new replacement.

This year, the Navy will hold operational evaluation testing, while also delivering planes to Whidbey Island so instructors can get ready to train the first squadron next year. The planes will come online officially in Sept. 2009, the projected date for Initial operational capability and graduation of the first class.

By then, Whidbey Island will have a four-jet training unit and a five-jet first squadron. However, the plane is already able to fulfill its duties if needed, said deputy program manager Capt. Paul Overstreet.

"In all honesty, they're operational right now," Overstreet said.

The Growlers take up about as much deck space as a Prowler, but they can carry a lot more fuel.

"For those who fly around the boat, gas is life," Overstreet said.

Right now, test planes are flying at Navy bases on both coasts, at China Lake and Patuxent River, Md., the Navy's main testing grounds. The new planes also posted strong results in a November 2007 exercise at Nellis.

Operators want to use the plane more aggressively, for more missions than ever envisioned in the planning stage.

"What we thought we were going to use this thing for is not what the guys who are flying today are saying," Overstreet said.

-- Rebecca Christie

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