The Grumman EA-6B Prowler is, simply, the most important single Electronic Warfare (EW) aircraft ever built or operated. The remarkable Prowler was the naval service's primary EW platform over five decades and, as of its 2015 retirement, had been in carrier duty longer than any other jet, from any other community, in history.
Sired from Grumman's A-6 Intruder medium attack aircraft, the EA-6B first deployed in 1972, directly into combat and was still in service with the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps over forty years later.
From 1971 through 2015 the center of the Prowler's world was NAS Whidbey Island, WA with 15 Regular Navy and a pair of Reserve squadrons being formed for duty throughout the world. The Vikings of VAQ-129 acted as the Fleet Readiness Squadron (FRS, or better known as the "RAG") from 1971 through 2014, training combat-ready aircrew and maintainers for both Navy and Marine squadrons.
170 EA-6Bs were built by Grumman at its Long Island, NY plant between 1970 and 1991. The hallmark of the type has been the series of upgrades the aircraft has gone through to keep it abreast, or ahead, of the threat.
The aircraft's criticality to strike operations led to it being designated as "Low Density/High Demand" (LD/HD) after Operation Desert Storm as there never seemed to enough to meet the demand of the deployed forces. In 1995 Navy Prowlers began to carry out Expeditionary, land-based deployments where they replaced EF-111A Ravens being retired by the Air Force. By 1997 the Navy had four VAQ squadrons specifically trained for this Joint Force role, making deployments to Europe and Asia.
The Navy started replacing its EA-6Bs with Boeing EA-18Gs in 2008. VAQ-129 ceased Prowler training in 2014 and the last Navy squadron, VAQ-134, transitioned to Growlers in 2015.
The Marines and the EA-6B
The Marines started replacing their EA-6A "Electric Intruders" in 1977 with VMAQ-2 receiving new ICAP aircraft as their first Prowlers. The Playboys' first deployment as part of the Corps' standing Unit Deployment Plan (UDP) occurred in September 1978 when detachment Alpha arrived at MCAS Iwakuni Japan. They also immediately assumed the duty of providing the USS Midway (CV-41) and Carrier Air Wing-5 (CVW-5) with Prowler coverage, a role they held until 1980 when relieved by VAQ-136, which became the Navy's only "forward deployed" Prowler squadron. Between 1981 and 1986 VMAQ-2 provided detachments for carrier deployments to the Mediterranean Sea withSaratoga (CV-60), Nimitz (CVN-68) and America (CV-66).
In 1991 VMAQ-2 flew twelve EA-6Bs during Operation Desert Storm, operating out of Sheikh Isa Airbase in Bahrain. At the same time Whidbey-based Marine Reserve unit VMAQ-4 converted from EA-6As to EA-6Bs and deployed to Iwakuni for six months as part of the UDP.
In 1993 the Corps decided to break VMAQ-2's detachments into three separate five aircraft squadrons with VMAQ-1 and -3 joining the original unit at Cherry Point. The Whidbey reserve outfit, VMAQ-4, became a Regular Marine organization at the same time and moved to Cherry Point to give the service a quartet of Prowler squadrons in North Carolina.
From this point on the four Marine Prowler squadrons made repeated deployments to exotic locations throughout the world and been involved in combat operations in the Balkans, Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan.
In May 2010 the Marines accepted their first ICAP III aircraft, which quickly replaced their ICAP II Block 89A models.
VMAQ-1 was redesignated as VMAQT-1 in 2013, taking over the EA-6B training duties from VAQ-129. The Marines started deactivating its Prowler force from 2016, the Corps' EW mission being taken over by the "MAGTF EW" concept, which involves drones, EW pods and Radio Battalions.
VMAQT-1 went first with VMAQ-4 going in 2017. VMAQ-3 followed in 2018 and VMAQ-2 retiring the type as well as the Marine Tactical Electronic Warfare community on a somber 8 March, 2019 at Cherry Point.
Standard (introduced 1971): Also referred to as "Basic" the Standard arrived at VAQ-129 in February 1971 and, in 1972, went directly into combat with VAQ-132 in Vietnam when the Scorpions made the first Prowler deployment in USS America (CVA-66) as a member of CVW-8. The Lancers of VAQ-131 quickly followed to the war zone aboard the USS Enterprise (CVAN-65).
Standard covered only four frequency bands, 1, 2, 4 and 7 and was produced in small numbers until replaced on the production line by EXCAP. The cockpit was configured with the pilot (Naval Aviator) in the front left seat and the other three being numbered Electronic Countermeasures Officers (ECMO) 1 to 3 from right front, right rear and left rear. The ALQ-99 EW system was run from the right side, ECMO-1 and ECMO-2. ECMO-3 controlled the ALQ-92 communications jammer.
The last Standard squadron to deploy was VAQ-136, which cruised in USS Independence (CV-62) in 1977. Surviving Standards were upgraded to ICAP configuration.
EXCAP (1972): "Expanded Capability": First deployed by VAQ-133 in 1973, the EXCAP basically doubled the frequency range of the Standard by adding bands 5/6, 8 and 9. The EXCAP made its final deployment with VAQ-133 in 1985.
ICAP (1975): "Improved Capability ": ICAP kept the same frequency range of the EXCAP but featured a completely redesigned cockpit with all ALQ-99 controls being in the aft seats and ECMO-1 (right front) controlling the radar, communications and ALQ-92 communications jammer, when it was installed. ICAP was first deployed by VAQ-135 in 1977 and retired by VAQ-134 in 1988. It was also the first version to be used by the Marines and was frequently called "ICAP I" following the 1985 introduction of the ICAP II.
ICAP II (1985): "Improved Capability II ": ICAP II further improved the breed by introducing advanced displays for the back seaters and the Universal Exciter, which allowed the ALQ-99 pods to carry transmitters in two different frequency bands. In 1986 the AGM-88 HARM missile debuted on the Prowler, giving the aircraft its first "hard kill" weapon. ICAP II would go through three successive improvements over the years, each named for the fiscal year it was ordered; Block 86, which gave it improved signal processing, The original ICAP II was retroactively described as Block 82 at the same time. Block 89 involved safety of flight systems and Block 89A dealt primarily with communications upgrades. Other improvements over time included frequency expansion to Bands 3 and 10 as well as use of ASQ-191 or USQ-113 communications jammers. VAQ-137 made the first ICAP II deployment, in 1985. The last Block 89A ICAP IIs were retired by VAQ-134 in 2015.
ADVCAP: (1989) "Advanced Capability": In what was supposed to be the version that followed ICAP II, ADVCAP featured an entirely new receiver system (the Receiver Processing Group, or RPG), more powerful engines (J52-P-409) and airframe maneuvering enhancements. Three aircraft were modified to participate in the test program prior to cancellation in 1991.
ICAP III: (2004): "Improved Capability III" ICAP III represented a substantial upgrade to the Prowler's passive receiver system as the ALQ-99 receiver was replaced by the new Northrop-Grumman ALQ-218, which maintained the EA-6B's reputation as the most advanced tactical electronic warfare platform in the world. VAQ-139 introduced the ICAP III to the fleet in 2005 and was subsequently operated in the Navy by VAQ-137, 140 and 142 and the Marines from 2010. They were the last Prowlers to operate, being retired by the Marines in the spring of 2019. The final EA-6B flight was from Cherry Point to Dulles Airport in Virginia on 14 March 2019, with VMAQ-2's BuNo 162230 being inducted and placed on display at the Smithsonian's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.
OPERATIONAL SQUADRONS all Navy squadrons based at NAS Whidbey Island unless noted
|VAQ-129||Vikings||1971-2014||Fleet Readiness Squadron (FRS)|
|VAQ-136||Gauntlets||1973-2013||Atsugi Japan 1980-2013|
|VAQ-142 (2d)||Grey Wolves||1997-2014|
|VAQ-209||Star Warriors||1977-2014||Naval Reserve, NAF Washington|
Marines; MAG-14, MCAS Cherry Point, NC
|VMAQ-1/VMAQT-1||Screamin' Banshees||1992-scheduled deactivation 2016|
Significant Combat Operations Involving the EA-6B
|Vietnam War||1972-1973||Linebacker II||VAQ-131, 132|
|Grenada||1983||Operation Urgent Fury||VAQ-131|
|Libya||1986||OperationPrairie Fire||VAQ-135, 137|
|Libya||1986||Operation El Dorado Canyon||VAQ-135, VMAQ-2|
|Iran||1988||Operation Praying Mantis||VAQ-135|
|Iraq||1991||Operation Desert Storm||VAQ-130, 131, 132, 136, 137, 141, VMAQ-2|
|Iraq||1991-92||Operation Provide Comfort||VAQ-133, 141|
|Iraq||1992-2003||Operations Northern and Southern Watch||All deployed squadrons|
|Iraq||1998||Operation Desert Fox||VAQ-130, 135|
|Bosnia||1995||Operation Deny Flight||VAQ-130, 141|
|Serbia||1995||Operation Deliberate Force||VAQ-130, 141, 209, VMAQ-3|
|Iraq||1998||Operation Desert Fox||VAQ-130, 135, 142|
|Serbia||1999||Operation Allied Force||VAQ-134, 138, 140, 141, 209, VMAQ-1, 2, 4|
|Afghanistan||2001-2013||Operation Enduring Freedom||all deployed squadrons|
|Iraq||2003-2012||Operation Iraqi Freedom||all deployed squadrons|
|Iraq/Syria||2014||Operation Inherent Resolve||VAQ-134, VMAQ-2, 3, 4|