Growler: an electronic attack warfare revolution.
The EA-18G Growler is an electronic attack version of the F/A-18F Super Hornet and will replace existing EA-6B Prowlers completely within the next several years. Leading the sea change are the Sailors of Electronic Attack Squadrons (VAQ) 129 "Vikings" and 132 "Scorpions" out of Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Wash. As the Fleet Replacement Squadron, the Vikings were the first ones to transition to the new platform. VAQ 129 flight crews are responsible for training additional Growler squadrons as they are phased into service.
"We are doing a lot of instructor training with the Growler platform to make sure we understand, execute and instruct all the different missions before the first student pilots check in," said Lt. Adam Drayton, a native of Chippewa Falls, Wis., and a VAQ-129 pilot instructor. "We are getting ourselves up to speed with the aircraft and its new advanced capabilities."
Facilitating a crucial part of that process, USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) served as the training platform for the first VAQ-129 carrier landings. Growlers turned heads all over USS Ronald Reagan, with Sailors lining the catwalks of the ship's superstructure to watch flight operations.
"It's really cool," said Interior Communications Electrician 3rd Class Joshua Smiley of Ronald Reagan's air department. "It's awesome how we're using the F/A-18 platform to its full capabilities. It's amazing how they do so much with it."
Concurrently at NAS Whidbey Island, VAQ 132 Sailors make preparations to become the first operational squadron to receive the aircraft in August 2009.
Maintaining the Legacy
Last year, the Scorpions held a final flight ceremony for the EA-6B Prowler, to bid farewell to the venerable aircraft after 37 years of being the bread-and-butter of their electronic attack war fighter capability.
VAQ-132's Commanding Officer, Cmdr. Matt Vandersluis talked about the importance of honoring those who have gone before you and, for those going through this transition, to remember the ideals and traditions that made the EA-6B community so successful.
"We need to take that feeling, that community that we had in the Prowler, and put it into the Growler. It's a new platform, but we're still the electronic attack community, that hasn't changed. We now have a platform that can do more things," said Vandersluis. "We can't lose all the successes we've had in the EA-6B electronic attack community. We have to keep our traditions [and] our sense of community--in Oak Harbor, Wash., in naval aviation and on Whidbey Island--and put it into the Growler."
After the event, transition efforts began in earnest. Maintenance crews began receiving technical training and were sent to schools to be educated on the new equipment and technology with which they will be working. Tool turnover for the Prowler was completed with the squadron awaiting tool issue for the Growler. Aircrews are training with VAQ-129 to become familiar with the enhanced flight systems now available to them.
"I'm excited, the [Sailors] in VAQ-132 are excited, everybody here has signed up to transition," said Vandersluis. "They all want to do it, and you can just see there's an excitement for the new plane."
Leveraging New Capabilities
Among the realm of improved capability will be air-to-air defense with the introduction of the advanced medium range air-to-air missile (AMRAAM) to the domain of electronic warfare which allows for better integration into strike-fighter packages. The Growler's predecessor had no such capability which prohibited the Prowler from conducting missions without a fighter aircraft escort.
"The Prowler is a high-value asset, and it has to be protected in the battle space, so a lot of time we have what we call a high-value asset combat air patrol (CAP) attached to us," said Capt. Brad Russell, commander, Electronic Attack Wing, U.S. Pacific Fleet. "With the advent of the Growler, and with our own ability to be in the link and shoot forward-firing ordnance--specifically AMRAAM--and our ability to act in a self-protect role as a fighter, the carrier strike group commander will at least have the option of not assigning a high-value asset CAP to that Growler. [It's a] more efficient use [of] strike fighter assets depending upon the threat environment."
Additionally, the Prowler tops out at just under 600 mph, whereas the F/A-18F Super Hornet airframe of the Growler reaches a maximum speed of Mach 1.8 (about 1,200 mph).
"When you're doing strike planning for events with the air wing, you're going to be able to bring your Growlers along at essentially the same profile; the same speed, the same altitude and the same kind of flight you would normally take for all the other strikers in the air wing," added Russell. "This is going to make planning a lot more efficient, getting in and getting out of the threat envelopes."
The Growler also features fly-by-wire technology as opposed to the Prowler's hydraulic system, as well as a host of new and updated computer aids for stand-off and escort radar jamming. Along with the major upgrades in performance, the Growler also has shown a serious reduction in maintenance time.
"The Prowler averaged about 60 manhours in the hangar every time it came in for maintenance," said Chief Warrant Officer John Covar, maintenance material control officer for VAQ 129. "The Growler gets it done in less than 11 hours."
For Sailors used to working on the Prowler, it takes some time to get used to the new configuration and the electronic maintenance libraries and records.
"Maintenance on these is slim to none, and it's a lot easier. When you take off a panel you can actually get to an actuator and it comes out a lot easier. I'm kind of blown away with the different systems this has--all the electronics and computers--the hydraulics are completely different not even close to the Prowler," said Aviation Structural Mechanic 3rd Class (AW) Matthew Morris, of VAQ-132, from Ash Flats, Ark., who has worked on Prowlers for more than four years. "This is the Rolls Royce of jets compared with the Prowler being an old Chevy. It's about the difference."
According to Master Chief Aviation Administrationman (AW/SW) James Campbell, VAQ-132 maintenance master chief, the maintenance may occur less often and take less time with the Growler, but it requires a higher skill level by those conducting the maintenance.
"The actual skill involved in working on this airplane is a lot more intense; your tools are more critical, using them for the right job. It's getting more and more critical to be totally aware of everything that you're doing," said Campbell.
There are adjustments being made by air crews as well. The Prowler was handled by an air crew of four, a pilot and three electronic countermeasures officers. Being that the Super Hornet airframe is a two-seater, it will only facilitate a pilot and what will now be an electronic warfare officer. The smaller crew means added responsibility to each individual, but the aircraft and the systems on board provide a more efficient way of doing business.
"The amount of technology and the information that's available to the crew right now is just light years away from what it was in a Prowler," said Lt. Brad Jansky, a VAQ-129 instructor, from Apple Valley, Minn.
"The way information is presented to the pilot has changed," said Jansky. "In a Prowler it was a more [traditional cockpit]. Now the modern EA-18G is a glass cockpit and heads-up display with all the information displayed in front of you. You just have to absorb it.
"It's a different means of getting the information; the information is the same, it's just how it's presented. The pilot today has to determine how and when to apply or get some of that information when it's needed. Once you know how to use it, it's a lot more convenient," added Jansky.
The electronic attack community conducts both carrier-based and ground-based deployments. NAS Whidbey Island maintains three expeditionary squadrons that participate in ground deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan in support of the war on terrorism and 10 squadrons that support carrier operations and deployments.
Although the readiness of a deployable EA-18G squadron in the near future is a major turning point in naval aviation, there were many preparations necessary at NAS Whidbey Island to make this a reality.
The EA-18G Growler Support Center was established in May of 2008 to eventually accommodate 24 people who act as consultants, with representation from all groups involved in the aircraft systems to help Growler squadrons ensure their aircraft are ready and operational.
"There are currently 13 government and industry employees in the building. The technical expertise resident in the Growler Support Center does not just reside in the local employees. They are a reach-back capability to the factory and to all suppliers" said Bob Papadakis, EA-18G NAS Whidbey Island integration lead. "The center, along with the base's existing supply chain management facility, ensures logistics support for new Growlers is readily available."
In February 2008, the refurbishing of Hangar 5, the hangar which houses VAQ-132, began, to accommodate five Growler squadrons, the Electronic Attack Weapons School and the Electronic Attack Wing, U.S. Pacific Fleet. The undertaking is a three-phase, three-year project, with an anticipated completion date of June 2010.
"The biggest thing I think NAS Whidbey Island is doing is ensuring that all military construction happens in time for VAQ-132 to meet initial operating capability," said Capt. Gerral David, NAS Whidbey Island commanding officer.
Additional variations to facilities on NAS Whidbey Island included new flight line electrical distribution system, which is undergoing installation due to the variation in power requirements for the Growler vs. the Prowler, modifications to the EA-6B simulator building to accommodate an EA-18G trainer, as well as renovations to the Center for Naval Aviation Technical Training Unit Whidbey Island.
"The bottom line is, lots of moving parts orchestrated very carefully, [to] ensure VAQ-132's transition happens on time, so they're ready to fight our nation's wars," said David.
Story and photos by [MC.sub.2] Tucker M. Yates
Yates is assigned to Navy Public Affairs Support Element West, Det. Northwest, Oak Harbor, Wash.