Flying the Prowler to war

Beginning on March 24th 1999 and for all the 78 days of the Allied Force, the aircraft that flew the most in the war against Serbia was the EA-6B Prowler. Suddenly famous all around the world, because of the Cavalese cablecar tragedy when a USMC Prowler sliced the wires of a cableway in an Alps resort in Northern Italy claiming 20 casualties, the EA-6B was the only aircraft that flew along every single strike mission in the Balkans.
As a high ranking US officer stated during the war, “we don’t have other aircraft can fulfill EW (Electronic Warfare) duties as the Prowler do. It is essential for the safety of the friend forces. Should, for any reason, the entire fleet of EA-6B be grounded we haven’t at present time any other asset that can substitute it with the same effectiveness and reliability”. These things were said 2 years ago, but the situation is the same today.
Talking with pilots about their flights above the Balkans, they often recall the calmness felt by knowing that a Prowler was flying somewhere nearby in the dark, providing the electronic support to their mission. The EA-6B is an aircraft whose main task is to blind and deceive enemy radars, to jam enemy radio communications and to attack the main centers of the enemy Integrated Air Defense System using the anti-radar Hughes AGM-88 HARM missile. Furthermore, in the modern war’s new scenarios, an EW (Electronic Warfare) platform is essential even to support aircraft “stealth” aircraft that proved not completely invisible to the next generation Russian-made low band long range radars as the sensational downing of the American F-117 shows.
The Nighthawks and B-2A Spirits are regular “customers” of the Prowler community: few are willing to remem that during the Gulf War the F-117 had a glorious baptism of fire also because EA-6B, EC-130 “Commando Solo”, EF-111 Raven” and RC-135 “Rivet Joint”, created threats-free corridors to the bombers, jamming Iraqi radars and monitoring radio communications of Saddam’s forces.

Keeping the experience gained during Desert Storm and Northern/Southern Watch operations well in mind, at the beginning of the Balkans crisis the Pentagon sent to Aviano 25 Prowler as part of the operation dubbed “Deliberate Force”. The aircraft belonged to the VMAQ-1 and 2 of the USMC from Cherry Point, to the VAQ-134 and 138 of the US Navy from Whidbey Island, and to the VAQ-209, the reserve squadron of the USN based at Andrews AFB.
During the most intense phase of the strikes the Department of Defence positioned the USS Theodore Roosevelt Battle Group in the Adriatic Sea to increase the pressure of the raids with the 4 EA-6Bs belonging to the VAQ-141, that the CAOC used mainly in the Southern area of the Theatre of Operations (Southern Serbia and Kosovo). Because of their allocated area of operation, the Prowlers from the US warship escorted the “packages” taking off from the warship and from the airbases located in Southern Italy (Gioia del Colle, Amendola and Trapani).
This aggregation of Prowlers in the same region of World worried the Pentagon a lot (it suddenly had the majority of these important aircraft in Europe with just a few available for the Japanese area) that, as a consequence, a handful Whidbey Island based Navy Prowlers were given a 96 hours alert for possible deployment to Iwakuni AB or wherever needed. Despite this, many planned sorties were cancelled during the war because of the lack of EW dedicated aircraft: above all, one of the most important “Lessons Learned” of the Allied Force, was that more EW assets are required to perform an offensive campaign against an Integrated Air Defense System and achieve quick air superiority.
Thanks to their great vicinity to the targets (the Roosevelt was positioned few nautical miles off the Albanian coast), the “Shadowhawks” of the VAQ-141 operated with a single fuel tank so with one more underwing pylon available for an additional AGM-88 HARM that gave the aircraft a supplementary shot available. The Aviano based ones were on the contrary too far from their targets and their orbiting areas and, despite the air to air refueling capability, were compelled to carry a third fuel tank that enabled 5-6 hours of “on-station” time. The carrier-based Prowler involvement in a particular area was very advantageous for the campaign planners: first of all less HARM platforms were needed in that region (aircraft with AGM-88 were consequently available for SEAD missions elsewhere). Ssecond, the Prowler had better self-defense capabilities, from Yugo SAM batteries radars than non-dedicated aircraft: SAM batteries radars, once switched on, could be blasted with the latest version of the HARM, the Block 6, GPS upgraded, that headed towards the signal’ source even if this was switched off before the missile reaches it.
Commonly, EA-6B flew missions in pair, orbiting at medium level: old low level flights were banned in the Kosovo theatre of operations since the risk to fly through SAM, MANPADS and AAA range was very height below 15.000 feet.
The orbit was positioned at a variable distance from the target depending on the weather conditions and altitude in the area, and reciprocal position and separation of the two aircraft was maintained referring to a previously established point, code named “Bullseye”, whose distance and radial were broadcasted in frequency by the pilot of the leader aircraft to the wingman using one of the on board radios (2 UHF, 2VHF, 1 HF and 1 SATCOM for satellite communications) that use the HAVE QUICK II system. This secure system uses the frequency hopping techniques to fragment the same sentence randomly on more frequencies. However it couldn’t be used in all missions because packages in Kosovo were also composed by aircraft belonging to nations not equipped with HQ radios compatible with the US ones. This usually compelled all aircraft to broadcast their messages “in the red” (in the clear) with heightened risk of being heard by the enemy, even though the codewords were changed daily and most of the mission was flown “COM out”.
The pre-planned orbits were performed with the help of the INS and GPS: aircraft flew in such a way that while the first aircraft was in the turn or in its outbound lag from the target position, the other was flying inbound to the objective, in order to continuously blind the enemy radars even if one of the emitters’ effectiveness is reduced by the fact that an aircraft is turning. Since the Prowler pods emit their electronic jamming parallel to the longitudinal axis of the aircraft, orbits were always perpendicular to the target.
Being some of the most valuable targets for the enemy anti-aircraft defenses that used upgraded SA-2, SA-3, and modern SA-6, the Prowlers, when orbiting shared all the signals received via data-link. The aircraft of the flight usually jammed the enemy radars alternately to deceive the last generation missiles that autonomously head towards the source of the “jamming”: this tactics was aimed to confusing SAMs by way of continuous variations of the position and intensity of the signal emitted by the source aircraft.

Armament and Equipment
Currently, the Prowler’s fleet embodies the Improved Capability (ICAP) II Block 89A upgrade, introduced in the mid ‘80s. The main aircraft equipments are the AN/ALQ-99 and USQ-113 pods. As said before the number and position of them on the underwing pylons depends upon the characteristics of the single mission.
The AN/ALQ-99 is used to blind enemy radars, and the ECMO-3 and 4, the back seat flyers, are responsible for it, while the USQ-113 is used to jam the enemy interceptors radio communication in order to prevent them communicating with their GCI (Ground Controlled Interceptor) or with other fighters. This is operated by the ECMO-2 who sits next to the pilot and is responsible also for the radio communication, the navigation and the defensive electronic countermeasures of the aircraft.
These pods use the data library of the computer of the aircraft. Here inside, all the main characteristics of the frequencies and “signatures” of any radar used by the enemy is recorded. The ECMOs analyze the signals received from the on board passive systems and once checked the type of radar that emitted them, start tailoring the jamming required to face it. The jamming can consist in a saturation of the radar frequencies to blind it completely or in a deceiving with false targets appearing on the enemy radar screens. If the crew decide to destroy the enemy radar, its signal is stored in the on board computer that transmits it to the launch computer of the missile, the Command Launch Computer, that identifies and visualizes the target and set the priority among more than one target. Once launched, at a distance of less than 30 nautical miles, this jewel 316.856 Dollars worth, heads at 2.280 Km/h against the target, destroying it with the fragmentation of its warhead that embodies a proximity sensor. One of the biggest trouble the Prowler community and planners had to face during Northern and Southern Watch and Allied Force is that some pro-Russian countries (such as Iraq and Yugoslavia) use some old SA-2 and SA-3 systems recently upgraded. The CIA and NSA (National Security Agency) knew little about these systems before those commitments and this means their data weren’t in the archive of the Prowlers’ computers. Despite being based on old fashioned SAM systems, the upgraded SA-2 and 3, use seeking and tracking systems that must be still discovered and analyzed. Thanks to the Prowler some of these system have today less secrets for the NATO than before and represent just limited threats.
The jamming capabilities of the Prowler’s apparatus are so powerful that, during the Allied Force, some of the EA-6B were compelled to quit their emissions because they were also disturbing allied radars and transmissions!!

Department of Defense planning counts to withdraw the Prowler not before year 2015. In fact, after some uncertainty and some delays, in 1998 the Navy signed a contract to upgrade the EA-6B to the ICAP III standard. New JTIDS (Joint Tactical Information Distribution System), upgraded receivers and transmitters, Improved Data Modem and new software configuration for the mission computer, are the highlights of the mid-life update. All ICAP III aircraft will have Night Vision Goggles capabilities thanks to the modification of the cockpit internal lighting. First updated aircraft is scheduled for delivery to the Navy in 2004.
Future in Electronic Warfare is the UAV (Unmanned Air Vehicles), aircraft with no pilots. However, the need of a dedicated aircraft in this mission is felt at high levels of the chain of command and a list of alternatives is currently being analyzed. Someone speculated about the possibility to buy a customized version of the brand new F/A-18F Super Hornet. The “Growler” as this latter was dubbed, could be a good candidate but, most likely, operative life of the Prowler will be extended until a project for a jammer version of the Joint Strike Fighter will become a reality. Electronic Warfare is paramount to protect the striking forces, it was so in the Desert Storm and Allied Force, will be even more in the future, to win the challenges against Air Forces that will always better knowledge of the techniques used by US forces in the EW and SEAD missions.

© David Cenciotti