IS MARINE AVIATION’S SIXTH FUNCTION IN PERIL?
By Col H. Wayne Whitten, USMC (Ret) and LtCol Rick B. Johnson, USMC (Ret)
(Reprint with permission from MCAA Yellowsheet Fall 2013)
Under current plans the Marine Corps will phase out itsEA-6B Prowlers starting in FY-2016 with the last squadron to be retired in 2019--- without replacement! If this happens, the viability of the sixth function of Marine aviation,electronic warfare (EW),would be compromised. For first time in history the air combat element (ACE)would need support from another service if it goes in harms way. Luckily, that fate is avoidable.
Looking back, the Marine Corps’ fledgling EW force got its baptism of fire during the Korean War and was ready to fend-off Soviet SAMs during the Cuban Missile Crisis before taking them on for real during the air war over North Vietnam. At the beginning of the Vietnam conflict the Marine Corps proved itself to be a capable first-in-force and by the end was widely recognized as the nation’s leader in expeditionary EW,a position of preeminence it still holds to this day.
The details behind this historic rise to the top of modern warfare’s most sophisticated function by our nation’s smallest service is chronicled in Silent Heroes, U.S. Marines and Airborne Electronic Warfare 1950-2012, which I published in 2011.Suffice to say, it began after Korea when Marines with a vision of the technical evolution of air warfare were given limited resources and leeway to take on aircraft and system modifications in-house that resulted in the F3D-2Q (later EF-10B) Skyknight, the first tactical jet EW aircraft. Affectionately known as “Ole Willie the Whale,” it would be employed by Marine Composite Reconnaissance Squadron One (VMCJ-1)during the first ever tactical radar-jamming mission against North Vietnam air defenses in April1965and remain in combat service until late 1969. For the record, five EF-10Bs were lost in Vietnam with all ten aircrew members perishing.
Early operational experience with the EF-10Bs would spawn requirements for the first purpose-built tactical EW aircraft, the Grumman EA-6A Electric Intruder, which entered development in 1962. Capitalizing on commonality with the new dual place A-6A, the EA-6A featured a state-of-the art EW systems suite. This was a quantum jump in capability over the early 1950s vintage EF-10Bs equipped with left over systems from World War II. Unbelievably, the Navy again passed on an opportunity to replace their obsolete prop driven EW aircraft and the EA-6A would be a Marine only aircraft. This no doubt contributed to a three-year gap in deliveries of the second production lot as the Corps fought to overcomeopposition fromSecretary Robert S. McNamara’s“Whiz Kids” on the OSD staff. Marine leadership turned to Congress for support pointing to the demand for the EF-10Bs in Vietnam and 15 additional EA-6As were funded over the objections of OSD. Needless to say the Marines’ perseverance paid off as the Electric Intruders proved to be most effective EW aircraft in Vietnam, with a superb recordsupporting joint air strikesagainst heavily defended targets.
A Grumman study on EA-6A enhancementshad led to an advanced computer-based design later adopted by the Navy as the EA-6B Prowler, and in the post-war years the Marines were able to consider that option as they looked to replace the EA-6A.First, an internal requirements battle had to be won as the downturn in end strength after Vietnam brought on an air versus ground debate. Critics pointed out the EA-6As were seldom used in direct support of Marines and that the Corps was being hit with a joint service support tax. This coming as DC/S Air was faced with serious funding issues as the Marine Corps looked to replace its legacy fighter/attack aircraft as well as upgrading the rotary-wing fleet. The promise of STOVL as the way of the future led to investing in the AV-8A Harrier despiteopposition from the Navy. The Navy was by then embracing its newfound airborne electronic attack (AEA) mission and openly encouraged the Marine Corps to drop its hard-earned organic EW capability. Does this scenario sound familiar?
Fortunately, visionary generalslike Phil Shutler and Tom Miller fought off the challenges and insisted on keeping the ACE intact asthe nation’s only independent expeditionary air arm. I vividly recall Lieutenant General Miller referring the joint service support critics to the line inTitle 10 of the U.S. Code requiring the Marine Corps to carry out missions other than in support of naval campaigns when the President as Commander-in-Chief so directs. Need I ask how often Marines have been employed in that role since WW II?
The decisions to retain the EW function and join the Navy in operating the EA-6B Prowlers have to rank amongst the best in the history of Marine aviation. None of us around at the beginning of that era would have foreseen the Prowlers remaining a cornerstone of the ACE for 35 years and counting. The Prowlers turned out to be the bane of modern day dictators as they were first employed against Kaddafi in 1986 and again to help seal his fate in 2011. In between, came operations in the Balkans against Milosevic and of course years on end in the Middle East helping dispose of Saddam and dealing with the Bin Laden led terrorists.
Inexplicably, what seems lost on naysayers of late is the versatility of the Prowlers with respect to adapting and employing advanced technology to counter threats far removed from the air defenses it was developed to handle. With the sudden rise of IEDs and other asymmetrical warfare threatsin Iraq and Afghanistan, the Prowlers were at the forefront of the counter offensive undertaken to support our ground forces. The record showsthat the operational tempo of our EW squadrons actually increased in the ten years since Iraq’s air defenses were destroyed and Saddam overthrown. To infer our men and women on those squadron deployments were not supporting the Marine Corps is insulting to theseSilent Heroes.
So what brings us now to yet another major decision point regarding the future of EW in Marine aviation, some diabolical plot? No, not even close. It’s just a series of unplanned events and unforeseen circumstances that have come together to derail an ambitious plan conceived over ten years ago to migrate our legacy tactical aircraft to a common fifth generation STOVL platform, and exploit the potential of unmanned aerial systems (UAS). This requirement resulted in the Marine Corps committing to the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter and with it came the expectations of the VMAQ community that there would be an EW variant in the future. No sense of urgency there as an analysis of alternatives by DoD back in 2001predicted the EA-6B could cover requirements for the Marine Corps until 2025 with projected airframe modifications and systems upgrades. In contrast, the Navy made a decision at that point to develop the EA-18G Growler, a variant of the Super Hornet as the replacement for their Prowlers.
It was not long before theconcept for a “system of systems”approach arose and gained traction around the Pentagon as the answer for the ever-evolving EW operational requirements. The Marine Corps eventually bought into thisconcept and itwas solidified in a 2010 MAGTF EW study. The study validated the planned phase-out of the Prowlers in favor of a family of “platform agnostic” systems to complement the F-35B’s envisioned capabilities. It was followed by the publication of the MAGTF EW CONOPS in 2011, which was recently cited in response to the study mandated by Congress to address the Prowler sunset plan.
Along with many of my fellow greybeards I was already concerned about the Prowler phase-out schedule and with the response to Congress decided to dig deeper into the details of the CONOPS. I was joined by retired Lieutenant Colonel Rick Johnson, a former commanding officer of VMAQ-2andour resident Prowler expert who has spent the past 17 years as an EA-6B flight simulation instructor. Understandability,the focus of the MAGTF EW CONOPS seemed to be on support of the ground combat element (GCE) through a network of systems under control of a robust battle management architecture. The heart of the aviation component of the proposed network is a family of UAS platforms with EW payloads complemented byground-controlled pods carried by fixed- or rotary-wing aircraft.
We found a gap that will significantly widen between the stated organic requirements in the CONOPS and its accompanying roadmap, and the realities of fielding schedules for the family of systems solution set. This was especially true with requirements versusprogramed capabilities to support tactical air operations in the high threat environments expected to be encountered by a first-in force. The CONOPS calls for the Prowler’s suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD) mission to be picked up by a large Group 4 UAS with an AEA payload coupled with F-35Bs with or without EW pods. This conceptual solution is certainly subject to debate but not our focus here.
Unstated is the expectation that the SEAD requirement would be reduced once the transition to the low observable F-35B is complete. And therein lies a major problemas the F-35B schedule has incurred significant delays but the Prowler sunset plan remains as conceived years ago. It is likely that it will be 2025 before the F-35B will be fielded in operationally significant numbers i.e., replacing 50 percent of the legacy aircraft. Worse, the Marine Corps does not have a program of record for a Group 4 UAS. The leading candidate for a UAS AEA payload or pod for the F-35B is the Navy’s Next Generation Jammer which is slated to replace the ALQ-99 Tactical Jamming System (TJS) employed by both the Prowlers and Growlers. It just entered development and is not scheduled to be operational in numbers until 2020.
Luckily, there are viable solutions to closing this capability gap before it turns into a credibility gap. Extension of the Prowlers for three to five years is an appealing option as is the transition to new Growlers, as it appears Congress will fund an additional 21 EA-18Gs to support expeditionary operations. Both theNAVAIRSYSCOM program manager and FRCSE lead confirm the EA-6B airframes can be extended without major issues until at least 2022 and the ALQ-99 TJS will be supportable beyond that. The Marine Corps has already taken over EA-6B FRS training and now has a full complement of flight and mission system simulators at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, North Carolina. Sources say manpower is the most critical issue inthat the Corps has already given up the VMAQ personnel slots as part of the planned end strength reductions. We suggest the country and Corps would be better off retaining the thousand or so mostly trained Marines that are needed to support a critical warfare function. Why not look to the reserves to help cover the mission at a reduced cost in active duty personnel as was successfully done with the EA-6As back in the 80s?
The most important reason to extend the Prowlers is to fully exploit its proven capabilities to support all of the organic EW requirements stated in the CONOPS for both the ACE and GCE. It like the new Growler can control all the electromagnetic spectrum used by current and emerging threats and has the required communications and network capabilities required for integration into the planned MAGTF EW battle management architecture. More importantly, it enhances combat situational awareness and targeting capabilities of the legacy F/A-18s and AV-8Bs as well as their survival when exposed to sophisticated air defenses. As a reminder, the CONOPS correctly acknowledges MAGTFs must be equipped to conduct operations in high threat environments that the F-35B was designed at great cost to handle.
We also would be remiss not to address the all too often repeated myth that Prowlers were not and presumably will not be available to support MAGTF operations. If today’s MAGTF commanders have that problem maybe they should look back to Desert Storm for answers. At that time, the IMEF ACE commander, Major General Royal Moore Jr., insisted thatevery Marine aircraft going in harms wayhad to have organic EA-6B support. In addition, numerous EA-6B sorties were devoted to searching for SCUD missile radars and jamming Iraqi counter-battery radars in support of artillery raids. MAGTF first is a Marine commander’s responsibility!
Transitioning to the available EA-18G Growlers would be the better option for the long term but runs counter to the planned migration of all legacy aircraft to the F-35B. It is a feasible near term option from a personnel training perspective given the common aircraft and avionics skills shared with the F/A-18C/Ds and Prowlers.
The default is an untenable gap that will only be partially filled by standup of additional Navy Growler squadrons at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Washington, even as the VMAQs are being ramped down at MCAS Cherry Point. The underutilization of MCAS Cherry Point and its Mid-Atlantic EW Range could result in a BRAC review, yet another unintended consequence of the Prowler sunset plan.
At this point weappreciate thatthere is no easy answer. But, the Marine Corps has never been a service that takes the path of least resistance, especially when it comes to finding the means to keep the MAGTF intact and ready to take on future challenges across the ever changing spectrum of modern warfare. Closing the impending gap in EW capabilitieswe have identified is just another of those challenges and like many before it will require Congressional assistance. To that end, we have called on Congress to support completion of an analysis of alternatives that would provide decision makers updated information on platforms, payloads and basing before the Prowler phase-out begins and the new production Growlers are delivered. With that we trust the lessons of the past will carry forward as we salute the future of electronic warfare in Marineaviation.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS:
Colonel Whitten served in the Marine Corps for 25 years as an NFO and acquisition professional. He was the first NFO to reach the rank of colonel after exclusive service in an EW MOS and the first to fly all three of the Marine Corps jet EW aircraft. He completed nearly 200 combat missions in Vietnam as an Electronics Countermeasures Officer flying EF-10B Skyknights with VMCJ-1. After a tour on the PACOM staff he transitioned to the EA-6A Electric Intruder, subsequently serving as 1st MAW EWO with three temporary assignments in Vietnam before returning to CONUS. He served as an EW projects officer at NAWC Point Mugu, California, and asthe Marine leadon the EA-6B Prowler fleet project team. He then received a Masters Degree from the University of Southern California under the Advanced Degree program before serving as EW requirements coordinator on the HQMC DC/S Aviation staff from 1975-1977. After graduating from Marine Corps Command & Staff College in 1979 he served as the commanding officer of MABS-12 and the executive officer of MAG-12 at MCAS Iwakuni. He returned to HQMC and then to NAVAIRSYSCOM as the EA-6B Class Desk officer during testing and fielding of the ICAP-II variant. He worked as special assistant for Marine Corps programs in the Navy secretariat before his final assignment as a C3 systems Program Manager at MARCORSYSCOM. He retired from the Corps in 1988.
Whitten subsequently worked for Northrop Grumman Corporation for 15 years as a project manager for Navy and Marine Corps C3I systems before retiring in 2004. He is active in the Marine Corps Aviation Reconnaissance Association and is currently Past President. He also serves as its historian and lead contributor to their website ( He recently published two books on the history of Marine aviation EW and reconnaissance. (Silent Heroes U.S. Marines and Airborne EW 1950-2012, and Countdown to 13 Days and Beyond, U.S. Marine Aerial Reconnaissance Against Castro’s Cuba 1960-1990.) He currently resides in the Tampa, Florida area with his wife Yvonne.
Lieutenant Colonel Johnson, USMC (Ret), graduated in 1972 from Montana State University with a Bachelor of Science in Economics and from Marine Corps Command and Staff in 1989. He served in the Marine Corps for over 22 years, retiring in 1996. His aviation experience includes over 2900 EA-6A/B flight hours in 15 years as a squadron NFO, with 37 combat missions in Desert Storm. He was a designated EA-6B mission commander, NATOPS Instructor & Evaluator, Instrument Instructor, Weapon and Tactics Instructor and Aviation Safety Officer. Lt. Col. Johnson was executive officer of VMAQ-2 during Desert Storm and later its commanding officer.He also served as an EWO on various staffs for over six years. After retiring from the Marine Corps, he has served 17 Years as an EA-6B Contract Simulator Instructor including the last four years as an EA-6B ICAP III instructor and designated Weapon System Evaluator. He also developed the Marine Corps EA-6B ICAP II to ICAP III trainer transition curriculum.