It’s time for Aerospace Archive to bid farewell to another great military aircraft. At the end of June, US Naval Aviation will lose a bit of its diversity when the sea service’s last Grumman EA-6B Prowler is retired. The Prowler won’t be gone completely from US skies – the US Marine Corps will continue to fly it – but it will be extirpated, extinct in part of its former range, and the largest chapter of its history closed.
Words & Photography: Mark Munzel
And what a history! The EA-6B has had the longest front-line Navy service of any carrier-based tactical jet: 43 years. It has protected F-4s, A-6s and A-7s, the F-14s and F-18s that replaced them, and the F/A-18E/Fs that replaced them.
The Navy acquired the EA-6B as a tactical jammer to help carrier air wings fight their way past the search radars and surface-to-air missiles of a Soviet naval task force, or even into the Soviet Union itself.Unlike prior jammers, the Prowler was built for the role from the start, not converted from spare airframes.Starting from its rugged, proven, and voluminous A-6A bomber design, Grumman integrated the ALQ-99 tactical jamming system and ALQ-92 communication jamming system into the new aircraft. The Prowler borrowed its prominent fin-top transmitter fairing from USMC’s earlier and less-capable EA-6A “Electric Intruder,” and was stretched to accommodate an extra pair of Electronic Countermeasures Officers, or ECMOs. The Intruder’s engines were replaced with more powerful (and louder) J52-P-408 variants to push the larger, heavier Prowler through the sky.
The first flight of an EA-6B demonstrator, converted from an A-6A, took place on May 28th, 1968. Early examples of the Prowler replaced Douglas EKA-3Bs Skywarriors aboard carriers, before being replaced themselves by new and upgraded EA-6B variants. Expanded Capability (EXCAP), Improved Capability (ICAP), ICAP II, and ICAP III updates gave the Prowler new and more capable jammers and processors, as well as improved avionics.A total of 170 Prowlers were built.
Although deployed at sea in four-aircraft squadrons, the EA-6B was valuable beyond its numbers. The Prowler could jam radars, communication networks, and improvised explosive device triggers. Taking to the offense, the EA-6Bs directed fighters to attack electronic threats, and from the late 1980s fired AGM-88 HARM anti-radar missile missiles themselves.
The Prowler participated in every offensive action by US Naval Aviation from the Vietnam War in 1972 through to attacks against Islamic State targets in Iraq in 2014. And in one of the first examples of joint operations, land-based “expeditionary” squadrons with mixed Navy and US Air Force crews took over the USAF’s jamming mission from the faster but less capable EF-111 Raven in the mid-1990s.
The EA-6B is easily recognized on a ramp or carrier deck because it’s not “pointy.”While the drumstick-shaped fuselage shape and bulging tail fairing are its most eye-catching features, they divert attention from the dozens of other antennas protruding fromits airframe. These take on both expected forms, as blades in various shapes and sizes, and unexpected ones: a wedge-shaped appendage at the base of refueling probe, faired transmitters on the sides of the vertical fin, and a stubby “beer can” at the back of the tail fairing.When loaded with ALQ-99 jamming pods on its wing and centerline pylons, the EA-6B also draws notice with its “propellers”– the turbines that provide the transmitting pods with electrical power.
The EA-6B equipped 14 operational and reserve Electronic Warfare (VAQ) squadrons in its Navy career, as well as training, test and evaluation units and four US Marine Corps squadrons. Being so small, VAQ squadrons were often tighter units with more camaraderie than larger fighter and attack squadrons. The small squadrons were also a plus for enthusiasts – if an EA-6B appeared at local airport for a refuelling stop or an airshow, the odds were good that it would be a colorful "CAG-bird."
The Prowler’s combat career ended on November 14th, 2014, with the return of VAQ-134 Garudas to the Prowler’s main home ashore, Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Washington, from a cruise on the USS George H.W. Bush. By that time, all the Navy’s other VAQ squadrons had switched to the Boeing EA-18G Growler, gaining automation, speed, reliability, and air-to-air capability, but giving up two crew positions.
Since November, VAQ-134 and the remaining support units that flew Prowlers have been gradually delivering airframes to museums. The last Navy example will leave Whidbey Island on June 27th, on the last day of a Prowler Sunset event for former EA-6B fliers and maintainers. The Marines will close out the Prowler’s service, flying its remaining examples from Cherry Point and deployed bases – but not from carriers – until later in the decade.