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Veteran Marine pilots: Don't retire EA-6B Prowler yet

Plane's retirement, F-35 delay will cause capability gap, they say

Jul. 22, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
VMAQ-4 'Seahawks' bring electronic warfare capabil
EA-6B Prowlers with Marine Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron 4 returned July 15 to Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C., after a deployment to Japan. VMAQ-4 is one of only four squadrons in the Marine Corps to fly Prowlers. (Lance Cpl. Brian Stevens / Marine Corps)

Retired Marine pilots who served in the electronic warfare community are challenging the service’s plan to deactivate the EA-6B Prowler in 2019.

Premature retirement of the Prowlers will create a capability gap in the Marine Corps, they say, due to delays in production of the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter and the failure to establish a program of record for the development of a large electronic warfare-capable unmanned aircraft.

The Corps’ Marine Air-Ground Task Force Electonic Warfare concept of operations — the official road map for the future of electronic warfare since it was signed in May 2011 — will leave the service without a robust electronic warfare capability of its own, argues retired Col. Wayne Whitten, past president and an active member of the Marine Corps Aviation Reconnaissance Association.

The association is taking its concerns to Congress in the hope of securing language in the defense appropriations bill to require an independent review of the issue, said Whitten, author of “Silent Heroes,” a history of Marine electronic warfare after 1950. The former pilot flew Prowlers for much of his career.

The phased retirement of the Prowler, which will begin in 2016 and conclude in 2019, comes years before viable replacements — including electronic warfare-capable F35-Bs — will be operational.

“Specifically, the F-35B program has incurred significant slips in schedule over the past three years and is not now envisioned to be fielded in operationally significant numbers, i.e. replacing 50 percent of the legacy aircraft, until approximately 2025,” according to one of the group’s position papers. “Worse, there is no program of record for a Group 4 [unmanned aerial system]. ...”

The lack of a Group 4 UAS — the largest category of unmanned aircraft — in addition to the initial scarcity of F-35Bs means the Corps’ plan to equip UASs and F-35Bs with EW pods will come too late, Whitten said. Moreover, given current fiscal constraints, the likelihood of the Marine Corps getting its own Group 4 UAS capable of carrying out the same electronic attack tasks as the Prowler will be difficult at best, he said.

The bottom line is that the Marine Corps will be forced to rely on the Navy for EW support, a second major problem, according to Whitten. Not only will that rob the Marine Corps of a robust organic capability, but the Navy plans to station its next-generation EW aircraft, EA-18G Growlers, at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Wash.. That means EW training capabilities on the East Coast will be expensive and difficult to muster.

“This basing plan raises major operational training and readiness issues, as these squadrons will be unable to perform routine cross-training with the majority of U.S. Air Force, Army and Marine ground and air units on the East Coast, [which] they will be required to support in combat,” the association’s position paper reads.

The Marines Corps contends it will continue to meet the service’s future EW needs.

The service’s Prowlers deploy as joint assets more often than they do in direct support of Marine forces, notes Capt. Richard Ulsh, a Marine aviation spokesman at the Pentagon, who was provided with a copy of the association’s position paper.

High-end joint force requirements will be supported by Prowlers until 2019, he wrote in response to questions from Marine Corps Times. Then Growlers, which will be in service prior to 2019, will take on that mission.

The service appears unconcerned that EW missions, which are already reliant on interservice cooperation, will remain so. Although Whitten and his fellow association members are concerned about a gap in the Corps’ EW capability, Marine leaders are confident in the ability of Navy Growlers to support the fleet.

Additionally, Ulsh pointed to the RQ-21A Small Tactical Unmanned Air System as a current program of record that can carry EW payloads and conduct electronic warfare support. The RQ-21A is a small UAS, however, unable to support electronic attack “due to the substantial weight of the high-powered amplifiers and supporting technologies required for electronic attack,” Ulsh wrote.

The service continues to push for program-of-record status to develop podded EW capabilities that can be attached to a variety of manned and unmanned platforms to execute EW missions.

“The Marine Corps is leveraging technology demonstrations, proofs of concept and recent deployment experience to develop and optimize collaboration between its UAS and EW programs,” Ulsh wrote.

Whitten said the association’s pilots understand the immense financial pressures under which military leaders now operate,but they believe Congress should mandate a review of electronic warefare capabilities and prevent the loss of EW assets within the Marine Corps. It would require funding, but they believe the money would be well-spent.

Toward that end, they have submitted legislative language for consideration by the Senate defense appropriations subcommittee to “fund an independent study to address electronic warfare operational training and readiness issues and related impacts on utilization of East Coast ranges and installations due to the Department of the Navy plans to phase-out Marine Corps Prowlers and single site all expeditionary EA-18G [Airborne Electronic Attack] squadrons on the West Coast.”

The group has yet to receive wholehearted support from Congress, Whitten said, but is starting to gain the attention of lawmakers.

The defense appropriations committee “has been made aware of our interest,” wrote Brooks Tucker, national security adviser to Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., in an email to Whitten. “I will be down at [Marine Corps Air Station] Cherry Point [N.C.] ... and will speak with the command about the issue.”

Burr serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Select Committee on Intelligence.

Whitten and his group are also attempting to garner support from Sen. Mark Kirk, D-Ill., a member of the Appropriations Committee. Kirk served as an intelligence officer in the Navy Reserve and worked closely with the EA-6B platform in Yugoslavia, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Whitten said he hopes Congress will take the association’s concerns seriously. It comprises more than 100 career Marines who served in the electronic warfare community and possess operational, requirements, acquisition and test and evaluation experience. Many went on to work for the government or the defense industry on such projects as the JSF, UAS platforms and EW systems.

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