Old EA-6Bs get a new role
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
When the EA-6B Prowler electronic-warfare plane first entered service with the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps starting in 1971, its main job was to scramble enemy radars and radios with its powerful jammers.
But with the Marines and the other U.S. armed services facing severe shortages of various planes, the few remaining Prowlers are now filling in — as flying spies over Iraq.
In May 2016, the main Pentagon’s task force in charge of the war on Islamic State posted a series of pictures of different aircraft on Facebook — and at least one included a Prowler. The photograph was notable, since the jet from Marine Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron Four was carrying a targeting pod instead of its normal jamming gear.
In January 2015, the Marine Corps told War Is Boring that its Prowlers were helping fight Islamic State, but had declined to provide any specifics. The jets were likely flying missions from the Marines’ main air hub at Ahmed Al Jaber Air Base in Kuwait. In April, more Marine EA-6Bs arrived at Incirlik air base in Turkey.
“Prowlers … provide an umbrella of protection to coalition aircraft and ground troops in the fight against Da’esh by degrading Da’esh communications,” Air Force major Omar Villarreal, the media operations chief at the flying branch’s top command for the Middle East, told War Is Boring via email, using another common name for Islamic State.
Thankfully, terrorists in Iraq don’t have any long-range, radar-guided surface-to-air missiles for the Prowlers to jam. But with Islamic State proving to be both highly organized and especially propaganda savvy, there have been more than enough opportunities to shut down the group’s communications networks, radio broadcasts and more.
“I can confirm that EA-6Bs are capable of carrying the … pod for NTISR,” he added, referring to so-called “non-traditional intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance” missions. “However, for operation security reasons, I am not able to go in any details about how it is used on this aircraft.”
Northrop Grumman designed the Litening pod primarily for aiming smart bombs and missiles, but the company also sells it as a surveillance system. With a high-resolution infrared camera and laser imaging sensor, the setup is well-suited for aerial spying.
In 2007, the Marine Corps upgraded its Prowlers to lug the pod, specifically for this purpose. The Leathernecks quickly took the specially configured planes to Iraq.
With the extra gear, teams of Prowlers could track militants as they planted roadside bombs and then jam the electronic triggers — such as cell phones signals — all by themselves. Alternatively, the crews could report back with new targets for air strikes or a warning for troops on the ground.
The EA-6Bs would carry drop tanks to stay in the air even longer during spying missions. With the extra gas, the aircraft can fly more than 2,000 miles without needing to refuel on the ground or in mid-air.
From the base in Kuwait, the Prowlers would only have to fly a 1,200-mile round trip to and from Islamic State’s stronghold in Mosul. It’s a journey of fewer than 400 miles to Fallujah, where Baghdad’s troops are still trying to eject the last of the terrorist group’s fighters.
And while the Pentagon remains tight-lipped about the Prowlers, the U.S. Naval Safety Center has actually confirmed the sailing branch flew the aerial spooks over Iraq, maybe as early as 2014. Navy Lt. Douglas Devuono recalled dealing with broken air conditioning in his EA-6B in the March-April 2015 edition of Approach, the center’s magazine.
“On one long flight over Iraq, I had a chance to deal with such an incident,” Devuono wrote. “The flight was an NTISR mission.”
While the article doesn’t identify the naval aviator’s unit, the Associated Press snagged a picture of him with his family in November 2014. The caption said Devuono was a member of the air wing on board the carrier USS George H.W. Bush.
Bush had just returned to base in Virginia after nine months at sea. During that time, its jets — including five Prowlers — flew strikes and other missions against Islamic State.
The deployment was the last combat outing outing for the Navy’s Prowlers. Seven months after the carrier came home, the sailing branch retired the planes for good.
With plans to keep the electronic attackers around until at least 2019, the Marines seem to have continued using the aging jets to keep tabs on Islamic State. And there’s a good reason.
On May 27, Air Force lieutenant general Charles Brown, the flying branch’s top officer for the Middle East, explained to reporters that his colleagues were always asking for more intelligence. “The more … I have, I can minimize the risk to civilian casualties and continue the precision air campaign that we have,” Brown said.
The Pentagon has to spread its valuable aerial spooks across both Iraq and Syria to battle Islamic State. On top of that, spy planes and drones in the Middle East might need to fly missions over other locales such as Afghanistan or Yemen.
Elsewhere, the Air Force has had to dispatch additional surveillance planes to keep tabs on other hots pots such as Ukraine and the South China Sea. Brown was probably more than happy to have the Prowlers’ help over Iraqi battlefields.
And while the Marines’ F/A-18 Hornet fighter-bombers could perform the same ad hoc intelligence mission that the Prowlers do, that fleet is definitely over-burdened. Between budget cuts and funds tied up in the perpetually delayed F-35 stealth fighter, the Leathernecks have struggled to keep the Hornets flying at all.
On April 20, 2016, the Marine Corps’ deputy commandant for aviation Lt. Gen. Jon Davis shocked legislators in Washington when he revealed that only 32 percent of the service’s jets around the world — fewer than 90 in total — were even airworthy.
The Marines want to eventually replace the EA-6B with F-35s kitted out for the same missions. With the Joint Strike Fighters still years away from making any real impact in actual combat, the 45-year old Prowlers will have to soldier on in the meantime.
And if the situation doesn’t improve — in Iraq and Syria or the Pentagon and the Marine Corps — the crews can expect to keep flying spy missions in addition to their regular duties.