The U.S. Marine Corps has begun in earnest to divest itself of the EA-6B Prowler and the unique electronic warfare (EW) capabilities of the ICAP III aircraft. As currently planned, Fiscal Year 2016 will start the dismantlement of the Marine Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron (VMAQ) community and phase-out of the EA6B aircraft that has since the mid-1970s served this nation and Marine Corps airborne EW requirements. Through 2019, one VMAQ squadron per year will be phased out. The initial planning phases for this decision have already been implemented with the realignment of personnel to different military occupational specialties. Headquarters Marine Corps (HQMC) has decided to replace this formidable EW platform with an idea that now appears mostly on paper and the drawing board. Known as the “MAGTF [Marine Air Ground Task Force] EW Concept,” the model proposes to use airborne pods carried on aircraft wing stations, EW unmanned aircraft systems, and ground EW support systems to replace the proven ICAP III EW weapon systems.
In short, this plan stands down the EA-6B ICAP III without a comparable weapon system and reduces EW capabilities of the MAGTF. By accepting the gap and loss of EW support generated by the Prowler’s phase-out, we are allowing the demise of electronic warfare, the fifth of six functions defined in the Marine Corps Warfighting Publication (MCWP 3-2), Aviation Operations.
During Operation Desert Storm, the Balkans conflict, and the past ten years in Iraq and Afghanistan, the EA-6B has been proving the platform’s tactical combat relevancy in both high- and low-threat environments, while continuing to receive weapon-system improvements and upgrades designed to defeat and degrade the sophisticated, lethal electronic threats that will be encountered on today’s battlefield. Without dedicated airborne EW support, will the Marine Corps’ AV-8B, F/A-18, and rotary-wing aircraft have the same survival probabilities in a hostile, high-threat environment? Will ground combat units retain the unique communication and EW jamming capabilities that the EA-6B provides?
Throughout the past 40 years, the Prowler has proven again and again the significance of airborne EW support. There is no assurance that dedicated airborne EW support based on hypothetical pods and unmanned aircraft systems and ground EW will be there in the future when needed.
Initially HQMC touted the F-35B aircraft’s integrated on-board weapon systems and ASA radar as the EA-6B replacement, but the capabilities of this fifth-generation attack/fighter aircraft were overestimated. With the F-35 unable to meet airborne EW expectations, the Navy has turned to the EA-18G Growler over the next 20 years, while the Marines have turned to an unproven and untested “concept.”
The ICAP III weapon system is state-of-the-art, designed to oppose the complex, sophisticated integrated air-defense systems and radars that our fighters and attack aircraft will encounter on today’s electronic battlefield. The aging EA-6B airframe was a major issue that has been addressed: all EA-6B ICAP III aircraft have received airframe and wing upgrades that have extended the structure’s life expectancy another eight years. After 2022, major funding would be needed for further wing and airframe longevity.
Even though the sundown of the VMAQ community is a reality, delaying the initial stand-down of the first squadron until 2019 would be prudent and judicious, based on current F-35B program issues and operational projections. This decision would minimize the loss of EA-6B EW support, while providing additional time to validate and bring to fruition the MAGTF EW Concept and further review alternatives to aviation EW/EA-6B capabilities.
The EA-6B ICAP III Block 5 and EA-18G Growler have very similar weapon systems, and each has received periodic software and hardware improvements. Either aircraft could be used to meet Marine Corps airborne EW requirements. However, having three electronic-countermeasures officers in a Prowler versus one electronic-warfare officer in a Growler provides a tremendous advantage in operating the aircraft’s weapon systems. As in the adage “train as you fight,” Marines supporting Marines should be the preferred method. The MAGTF was designed to meet all Corps expeditionary combat requirements. That warfighting doctrine and capability should be retained.