This was the first U.S. military aircraft specifically designed for tactical electronic warfare— jamming enemy radar and communications while escorting aircraft on strike and bombing missions. More than 30 antennae distributed around the airplane detected radio and radar signals, and it carried up to five underwing jamming transmitter pods.
Prowlers flew with Navy and Marine squadrons from 1970 to 2019, also protecting Air Force airplanes from enemy attack. When Congress lifted a ban in 1993 on women in combat aircraft, Prowlers were among the first with women pilots and crew. No Prowlers were lost in combat.
While Prowlers first flew in Vietnam, Grumman delivered this airplane to the Navy in 1986. It flew combat operations over Iraq, Bosnia, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and Syria. It retired in 2019 from Marine Electronic Warfare Squadron 2 (VMAQ-2) as one of the last two Prowlers flying. Every Navy and Marine squadron is allowed one “show bird” with a more colorful paint job such as this.
The EA-6B Prowler was the first U.S. military aircraft specifically designed for tactical electronic warfare — jamming enemy radar and communications while escorting aircraft to and from the target on strike and bombing missions. More than 30 antennae distributed around the airplane detected radio and radar signals, and it carried up to five underwing jamming transmitter pods, each with three separate jammers that could be aimed independently. The Prowler’s origins lie in the Marine Corps’ Vietnam-era desire for an improved electronic warfare (EW) aircraft that could accompany a strike force to the target and back.
Airplanes began carrying equipment to detect and degrade enemy radar during WWII. This equipment was small, light, simple, and did not need specialized operators. It was easily added to ordinary bombers. During the Korean war, the radar environment had become more complex, and so did the means necessary to counter it. The equipment was heavier and bulkier than in WWII and required specialized operator(s) on board to use it effectively. The U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps began modifying existing airplanes, turning them into specialized electronic warfare variants.
The electromagnetic environment became even more complex in Vietnam: search and height-finding radars to detect incoming aircraft appeared in large numbers. To these were added tracking and guidance radars for aiming anti-aircraft guns and surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). The Air Force and Navy relied on electronic warfare variants of the Douglas A3D/A-3 “Skywarrior” (B-66 in Air Force use). However, these airplanes were too vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire and enemy fighters. They were used as “stand-off” jammers instead, orbiting in safer airspace (often offshore) in support of strikes. In the 1950s, the Marine Corps had adapted the Douglas F3D/F-10 “Skyknight” into the EF-10, capable of accompanying strike aircraft to the target and back. Even before the U.S. entered the Vietnam conflict in 1964, however, the Skyknight was obsolescent and the Marine Corps sought a replacement.
In 1958, the Navy awarded a design contract to Grumman for a night/ all-weather heavy attack aircraft, the A2F/A-6 Intruder. The Marine Corps was interested in this new attack airplane, but also saw it as an aircraft suited to being re-fitted as a tactical EW aircraft. In 1959, the Marines began talking to Grumman about modifying the basic Intruder design into a dedicated EW aircraft to replace its aging Skyknights. At this time, the Navy had no interest in such an aircraft; it was strictly a Marine Corps project. The Marine Corps got funding in the Fiscal Year 1962 budget for what would become the EA-6A “Electric Intruder.”
The EA-6A was substantially similar to the A-6A attack version on which it was based. This was convenient for the Marine Corps, since both variants would have similar flight characteristics (the EA-6A would have no problems keeping up with the A-6As they were escorting) and significant parts commonality. Only a couple of inches longer than the Intruder, the Electric Intruder maintained the two-seat cockpit, with the second seat occupied by an Electronic Counter-Measures Officer (ECMO). To save development costs, the EA-6A incorporated numerous existing (though relatively new) receiver and jamming systems, some of which had not been designed for use in airplanes. The separate systems meant that the ECMO had to do a lot of work, detecting and identifying enemy radar on a receiver system, then manually transferring the necessary info to the appropriate jamming/deception system. Nevertheless, the Electric Intruder was a huge improvement over the EF-10s it began to replace in 1966.
When the first EA-6A prototypes began flying in 1965, the Navy got interested in the program as a replacement for its aging electronic Skywarriors. While the Marine Corps had focused on meeting the electronic environment in the “limited wars” of Korea and Vietnam, the Navy wanted a tactical jammer capable of operating in a full-scale nuclear war with the Soviet Union. In 1966, the Navy formally asked Grumman to begin designing an improved Electric Intruder.
Meeting the Navy’s expansive requirements meant completely redesigning the A-6 airframe. Grumman lengthened the fuselage and modified the canopies to fit a four-person crew: a pilot, one ECMO to concentrate on jamming enemy voice communications, and two more ECMOs to share responsibilities for jamming radar and other signals. The new aircraft would be heavier than an A-6 (especially on landing) due to all the electronic equipment. Furthermore, relatively few of these aircraft would be manufactured, and yet they would be in high demand. The combination meant that individual EW airplanes would be flown more often than any individual Intruder, so Grumman strengthened the entire airframe (including the wings and landing gear) to accommodate the extra weight and make it more durable. To account for a heavier aircraft, Grumman fitted it with more powerful versions of the engines on the Intruder, giving the new aircraft comparable speed despite its greater weight.
Grumman also worked closely with its electronic subcontractors to design the new airplane with an integrated, computerized detection and jamming system designed specifically for the airframe. The new system meant that the ECMOs could detect and identify signals and initiate jamming much faster and more easily than in the Electric Intruder. The integrated system also offered new abilities such as “look through” jamming: an ECMO would still be able to see the original signal despite the system’s own jamming, permitting them to see any changes in the source emissions. The computer control also permitted new techniques that made it more difficult for enemy radar to recognize and counteract jamming, including creating false targets. Combined with more sensitive receivers and jammers capable of transmitting more powerful signals and focusing them on the target with directional antennae, the new aircraft was a significant increase in U.S. electronic counter-measures (ECM) capabilities.
While the Navy designated the new airplane the EA-6B, it shared little in common with either the EA-6A or the basic A-6 beyond general appearance. Consequently, it received a new nickname, “Prowler.” The first prototype Prowler flew in 1968 with the first deliveries to the Navy in 1970. The Navy’s Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron (VAQ) 132, was the first operational squadron to transition to the Prowler. The squadron made its first deployment the following year on the USS America (CV-66) to Vietnam and supported the first night of operation LINEBACKER II, adding their ECM capability to Navy EKA-3B and USAF EB-66 Skywarriors and USMC EA-6As (all in the standoff role) to protect the large USAF B-52 bombing attacks on North Vietnam. Navy Prowlers flying off the carriers continued to supplement Marine Corps Electric Intruders (flying from bases in South Vietnam) through the end of the war.
The Air Force had been impressed with the potential shown by the Prowler at the end of the Vietnam War and seriously considered purchasing their own Prowlers, but ultimately chose to have Grumman install the new systems on an airplane already in the USAF inventory, the supersonic F-111 Aardvark. Officially nicknamed “Raven,” the EF-111A was known informally as the “Sparkvark” and was operational from 1980-1998.
The Marine Corps, however, kept their Electric Intruders even as the Navy created more Prowler squadrons. The first Prowlers delivered to the Navy were limited to jamming only the frequency bands encountered in Vietnam – the Navy was willing to accept an initially less capable system than planned in order to get the aircraft into combat as soon as possible. The new ECM systems on the Prowler had also experienced some teething problems in Vietnam. Furthermore, Prowlers not only required more crew in the cockpit, but additional specialized maintenance personnel on the ground. All in all, the Marines did not see the point of acquiring an airplane they saw as more expensive to purchase and operate, but no more capable than their Electric Intruders.
Still, the Marine Corps recognized that it would need to replace its EA-6As soon and considered a similar EW modification of the latest model A-6, the A-6E, as an alternative to the EA-6B. Negotiations with the Navy led, in 1974, to the Marine Corps agreeing to replace its EA-6As with EA-6Bs in return for modifications to the Prowler’s systems. These changes would alleviate the problems encountered during Vietnam while adding some of the electronic reconnaissance capabilities the Marines particularly wanted, but the Navy did not. The first of these new ICAP (Improved CAPability) Prowlers delivered to the Marine Corps began replacing the EA-6As of Marine Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron (VMAQ) 2 in 1977. (A Marine Corps reorganization in 1975 split Marine reconnaissance and EW aircraft into separate squadrons, with the VMCJs becoming VMAQs.)
Since the Vietnam War, no major US combat operation has occurred without EW support, and for much of that period, this has meant Prowlers. Navy/Marine Corps Prowlers supported USAF missions before the EF-111A Raven became operational as well as after the Raven’s retirement. Prowlers flew in support of the 1983 invasion of Grenada, the 1986 bombing of Libya, the 1985 interception and diversion of the airliner carrying the Achille Lauro hijackers, air operations over Bosnia in the 1990s, and in both Gulf Wars.
When the Navy opened combat aircraft to women, a Prowler squadron was the first to have women assigned: VAQ-130 received three female Naval Aviators in the summer of 1993. When Rosemary Mariner, one of the Navy’s first female Naval Aviators, became the first female to command an operational combat squadron, it was a Prowler squadron, VAQ-34, which she led during operation DESERT STORM in 1991. The Marines did not open combat aircraft to women until 1997, but again, Prowlers led the way: the first female Marine to fly into combat did so as a Prowler ECMO.
The Navy retired its last Prowler in 2015, replacing it with the EA-18G “Growler,” a modification of the two-seat F/A-18E Super Hornet. The Growler’s jamming system is even more automated than the Prowler’s, with the ability to share information and jamming responsibilities among several Growlers. The Marine Corps retired its last Prowlers in 2019 and disestablished its last VMAQ squadron, relying in the future on Navy Growler squadrons for tactical jamming support, though Marine aviators will fly with the Navy squadrons.
In the almost fifty years that the Prowler was in service, it proved itself both flexible and indispensable. The Prowler eventually gained the ability to launch HARM missiles (designed to attack enemy radars physically), but since its main weapon, electromagnetic radiation, is invisible, it has been difficult to objectively assess the Prowler’s success against the enemy. Nevertheless, numerous anecdotes attest to the Prowler’s effectiveness in combat, and, significantly, no Prowler was ever lost to enemy fire. Prowlers have escorted Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and even Army missions! In Iraq and Afghanistan, it was realized that Prowlers could jam signals from cell phones and garage door remotes that were being used to detonate roadside bombs in attacks on Army convoys.
NASM’s Prowler (Bureau Number or “BuNo” 162230) was manufactured in 1986; It participated in operations DESERT SHIELD/DESERT STORM (First Gulf War) as part of Navy Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron 137 (VAQ-137). In 1999, it served with Marine Corps Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadrons VMAQ-1 and VMAQ-4 as part of the NATO operation ALLIED FORCE BOSNIA (airstrikes in the former Yugoslavia). Following that, it flew in operation NORTHERN/SOUTHERN WATCH (no-fly zones in northern/southern Iraq following Desert Storm, 1992-2003) with VMAQ-2 and VAQ 142. It served several tours in Afghanistan between 2007 and 2012 with VMAQ-2 and VMAQ-4, supporting operation ENDURING FREEDOM (the Global War on Terror). Shortly before flying in to NASM’s Udvar-Hazy Center, the aircraft had returned from Turkey where, with its final squadron, VMAQ-2 “Death Jesters,” it participated in operation INHERENT RESOLVE, the campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. VMAQ-2 was the last operational Prowler squadron, and the delivery of 162230 to the Udvar-Hazy Center was the last Prowler flight.
162230 has a colorful paint job compared to other modern military aircraft. In 1976, the Navy introduced a new “Tactical Paint Scheme” that, among other things, eliminated the splashes of color – especially on the tails – that had been a source of squadron pride up to that point. To counter the loss in morale, the Navy permitted one aircraft of each squadron to have a colorful paint job. This became a somewhat ceremonial aircraft (though they are still used in combat missions). On carriers, such aircraft are referred to as “CAG birds” (“CAG” being an older abbreviation, still in use, for the commander of the carrier’s air wing). They are traditionally available to the air wing commander to fly, and typically carry the side number (or “modex”) of 000 or 001 as well as the wing commander’s name under the cockpit. In shore-based squadrons, they are the “commander’s aircraft” and ceremonially carry the squadron commander’s name. (In both cases, others in the squadron may typically fly the aircraft – it is not reserved solely for the CAG’s or commander’s use.) The Death Jesters, however, chose to make their commander’s aircraft number “02”, since their squadron was VMAQ-2. (When based ashore, the Marines only use two-digit side numbers.) The airplane bears the names of the squadron’s last commander (who was an ECMO), its best pilot, and the two top-ranking ECMOs in the squadron. The delivery flight to NASM was the only time they all flew together in the airplane.