The base is in the midst of a transition from the venerable,but still capable, Northrop Grumman EA-6B Prowler electronic attack aircraft tothe new Boeing EA-18G Growler–which is based on the proven Boeing F/A-18F BlockII Super Hornet.
Basically, the US Navy and Boeing ported over the guts ofthe latest ICAP III version of the Prowler into the Super Hornetairframe–which, with the addition of an interference cancellation system (itallows Growler crews to communicate while jamming) and a vastly improvedman-machine interface (and a few other improvements) resulted in the Growler.
The Growler, even with its two-man crew versus the four-mancrew of the Prowler, offers vastly improved performance over the older machine,says Commander Chris Middleton, commander of the VAQ-129–the Prowler andGrowler schoolhouse (Fleet Replenishment Squadron if you want get all formalabout it). That’s partly due to the Super Hornet’s airframe qualities–such asspeed, air-to-air capability (It retains the F/A-18E/F’s AIM-120 AMRAAM–akathe Slammer–capability but not AIM-9X capability, though it does still retaindual JHMCS capability. It also it has no M61 20mm cannon), and Raytheon APG-79active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar. But the EA-18G is also networkedand has far better automated cockpit systems. That affords the pilot and navalflight officer in the back the ability sort through more targets with fargreater confidence in the information gathered–and they can share it,Middleton says.
Nonetheless, the Growler still uses the Prowler’s ALQ-99jammer 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 willfeature active electronically scanned array antennas and, most likely, alighter, more aerodynamically shaped pod. Potentially, the NGJ could allow thejet to fly supersonically with the pods attached. Currently, the ALQ-99 limitsthe EA-18G to Mach 0.95–however, the actual jamming mission is likely to stillbe flown at Mach 0.95 according to Navy sources. Also, the NGJ will onlyreplace the mid-band ALQ-99 jammers; the ALQ-99′s low-band jammer is actuallyin production and is relatively new.
Right now, VAQ-129 has 41 EA-18Gs, with more arriving everymonth. The unit fluctuates between 41 and 43 Growlers. The squadron also has9-10 Prowlers on the ramp at any given time. By April 2014, VAQ-129 will stopproducing new Prowler aircrews and that mission will shift to the US MarineCorps at MCAS Cherry Point, North Carolina. Until then, the unit will do bothmissions.
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 fivejets)–three of them land-based expeditionary squadrons supporting the US AirForce. Incidentally, there areUSAF crews flying alongside their USN and USMC brethren at Whidbey… Middletonsays those crews are fully integrated into their operations and could evendeploy with a USN squadron on a carrier. It’s already happened, he says.
Unfortunately, the NAS Whidbey Island leadership wasextremely leery of allowing photography or videos to be taken. The onlyaircraft we were allowed to photograph was inside the hangar and completelybuttoned up… We did see the cockpit, and it is identical to the Block II SuperHornet I flew at Farnborough earlier in the year. But alas, we couldn’t film flightoperations on the ramp, which were fairly impressive.
Incidentally, while we were at Whidbey–primarily for theGrowlers, the base also flies the Lockheed Martin P-3C Orion. Those aircraftwill soon be replaced by the new Boeing P-8 Poseidon aircraft, based on the 737airliner. It’s also slated to receivethe Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton unmanned aircraft–better known as the BroadArea Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) program, which is based on the Global Hawk.