The base is in the midst of a transition from the venerable, but still capable, Northrop Grumman EA-6B Prowler electronic attack aircraft to the new Boeing EA-18G Growler--which is based on the proven Boeing F/A-18F Block II Super Hornet.
Basically, the US Navy and Boeing ported over the guts of the latest ICAP III version of the Prowler into the Super Hornet airframe--which, with the addition of an interference cancellation system (it allows Growler crews to communicate while jamming) and a vastly improved man-machine interface (and a few other improvements) resulted in the Growler.
The Growler, even with its two-man crew versus the four-man crew of the Prowler, offers vastly improved performance over the older machine, says Commander Chris Middleton, commander of the VAQ-129--the Prowler and Growler schoolhouse (Fleet Replenishment Squadron if you want get all formal about it). That's partly due to the Super Hornet's airframe qualities--such as speed, air-to-air capability (It retains the F/A-18E/F's AIM-120 AMRAAM--aka the Slammer--capability but not AIM-9X capability, though it does still retain dual JHMCS capability. It also it has no M61 20mm cannon), and Raytheon APG-79 active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar. But the EA-18G is also networked and has far better automated cockpit systems. That affords the pilot and naval flight officer in the back the ability sort through more targets with far greater confidence in the information gathered--and they can share it, Middleton says.
Nonetheless, the Growler still uses the Prowler's ALQ-99 jammer pods, which are from a bygone era. Eventually, Next Generation Jammer (NGJ) pods will replace the ALQ-99 toward the end of the decade. It will feature active electronically scanned array antennas and, most likely, a lighter, more aerodynamically shaped pod. Potentially, the NGJ could allow the jet to fly supersonically with the pods attached. Currently, the ALQ-99 limits the EA-18G to Mach 0.95--however, the actual jamming mission is likely to still be flown at Mach 0.95 according to Navy sources. Also, the NGJ will only replace the mid-band ALQ-99 jammers; the ALQ-99's low-band jammer is actually in production and is relatively new.
Right now, VAQ-129 has 41 EA-18Gs, with more arriving every month. The unit fluctuates between 41 and 43 Growlers. The squadron also has 9-10 Prowlers on the ramp at any given time. By April 2014, VAQ-129 will stop producing new Prowler aircrews and that mission will shift to the US Marine Corps at MCAS Cherry Point, North Carolina. Until then, the unit will do both missions.
Whidbey Island has a total of 79 Growlers at the moment. However, it will eventually have 114 of the new jets in 13 squadrons (each with five jets)--three of them land-based expeditionary squadrons supporting the US Air Force. Incidentally, there are USAF crews flying alongside their USN and USMC brethren at Whidbey... Middleton says those crews are fully integrated into their operations and could even deploy with a USN squadron on a carrier. It's already happened, he says.
Unfortunately, the NAS Whidbey Island leadership was extremely leery of allowing photography or videos to be taken. The only aircraft we were allowed to photograph was inside the hangar and completely buttoned up... We did see the cockpit, and it is identical to the Block II Super Hornet I flew at Farnborough earlier in the year. But alas, we couldn't film flight operations on the ramp, which were fairly impressive.
Incidentally, while we were at Whidbey--primarily for the Growlers, the base also flies the Lockheed Martin P-3C Orion. Those aircraft will soon be replaced by the new Boeing P-8 Poseidon aircraft, based on the 737 airliner. It's also slated to receive the Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton unmanned aircraft--better known as the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) program, which is based on the Global Hawk.