One Last Chance to Scramble the Bad Guys
U.S. Navy’s elderly EA-6B electronic warfare jets target Islamic State
The U.S. Navy’s EA-6B Prowler electronic-warfare jet has flown top cover for American troops and planes in every major U.S. conflict of the last five decades.
Now the aged Prowler is on its final front-line Navy cruise aboard the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush in the Persian Gulf. Much more modern Boeing EA-18G jets soon will fully replace the venerable Northrop Grumman-made Prowlers.
But not before the last Navy EA-6Bs scramble the Hell out of Islamic State militants in Iraq.
The EA-6B is a stretched, four-seat version of the tw0-seat A-6 bomber that the Navy flew from the 1960s into the late 1990s. The first Prowler entered service in 1971. At its peak, the Navy fleet included around 150 EA-6Bs.
The Prowler confuses air defenses. It carries up to five ALQ-99 pods under its wings and fuselage. The pods generate electronic noise in certain frequencies in order to scramble enemy radars and prevent them from locking onto American and allied planes.
The EA-6B also can kill air defenses … by firing radiation-homing HARM missiles at radar emplacements.
And after decades of upgrades, the Prowler now does so much more. Its sensitive antennae can detect enemy sensors at long range, lending the veteran plane a reconnaissance role.
And in war zones where the bad guys really don’t possess much in the way of sophisticated weaponry, the Prowler still is useful. It can jam radio signals, making it difficult for insurgents and terrorists to communicate with each other and to detonate roadside bombs.
EA-6Bs were regular visitors to Iraq during the U.S. occupation—and they still fly over Afghanistan. “A lot of what we do is com-centric, and really we have been focusing on denying the enemy the ‘kill chain’ communications,” a Prowler pilot told Combat Aircraft magazine’s Rich Cooper and Steve Comber.
With more and more EA-18Gs rolling out of Boeing’s St. Louis factory, the EA-6Bs fast are disappearing. In February, Bush sailed from Virginia with more than 60 warplanes aboard, including five Prowlers belonging to Electronic Attack Squadron 134.
Bush’s cruise is the EA-6B’s last planned deployment with the Navy. The Marines plan to keep some Prowlers in service for a few more years.
Starting this spring, the nuclear-powered flattop held station in the Indian Ocean in order to launch air strikes into Afghanistan. Pairs of Prowlers would take off then split up—individual EA-6Bs flying alone over landlocked Afghanistan to jam Taliban communications.
Then in June, Islamic State militants rapidly advanced across northwestern Iraq, routing the Iraqi army, capturing the city of Mosul—including a vital dam—and forcing hundreds of thousands of refugees to run for their lives.
Bush sailed into the Persian Gulf to begin reconnoitering the battle zone. And on Aug. 8, as the militants encircled 100,000 Yezidi refugees on Mount Sinjar, Bush’s air wing starting dropping bombs and firing missiles.
By Aug. 20, U.S. jets had hit Islamic State 84 times, covering Iraqi and Kurdish troops as they counterattacked and subsequently rescued the refugees and recaptured the Mosul dam.
Bush’s F/A-18F fighters are doing most of the bombing, but Navy officials confirmed that the EA-6Bs are flying over Iraq, too. Islamic State does possess a small number of surface-to-air missile systems it captured from the Syrian army—and could improvise others.
We asked the Navy what the EA-6Bs were up to over Iraq and the reply was, well, minimalist—“electronic warfare (jamming, etc.)”
The Daily Mail newspaper did say that British and American crews were flying spy planes to “monitor the extremists’ movements, listen into their communications and jam fire control units on missile systems.”
So let’s assume the Prowlers are doing the same thing to Islamic State that they had been doing to the Taliban—scrambling the insurgents’ radios in order to prevent them talking to each other … and to keep them from setting off bombs.
Not bad for a swan song.