The EA-6B Prowler, based on the A-6 Intruder, is/was the Navy’s electronic warfare plane, providing ECM and jamming in support of attack aircraft. The Prowler is being retired in favor of the electronic warfare version of the Hornet, the EA-18G Growler.
According to Wiki, 170 Prowlers were built. Wiki also cites 114 Growlers as built or on order although reports suggest that the Navy is looking at additional orders.
Here are some comparative specs on the two aircraft.
Unfortunately, electronic warfare performance assessments of the two aircraft do not exist in the public domain. I remain highly doubtful that the four operators of the Prowler can be effectively replaced by two.
Two things stand out in a cursory look at the aircraft. First, is that the Growler’s mission range appears to be much less than the Prowler. Even granting the Growler the higher range figure due to a clean configuration only puts it at just more than half the Prowler. Second, is that the Growler has been obtained in much smaller quantities than the Prowler. We’ve repeatedly stressed that “quantity has a quality all its own”. Further, modern combat is placing an ever-increasing emphasis on electronic warfare while, at the same time, the Navy has decreased its electronic warfare aviation fleet by 33%.
Lacking any performance comparison, I have no particular problem with the Growler other than the range and quantity issues. However, the Growler seems to be an example of the all too common trend of new platforms and systems that provide only limited benefits over their legacy predecessors despite large expenditures of time and money. For example, the Growler uses the same legacy ALQ-99 jamming pods as the Prowler which would suggest no performance improvement in that respect.
One of the original justifications for the Growler over the Prowler was the increased speed – the concept being that the Growler could keep up with the strike aircraft. That always seemed a bit suspect to me. The Prowler had sufficient speed to keep up with strike aircraft at cruising speed. Only at max speed would the Prowler drop off. Given that the strike aircraft would cruise at a moderate speed to and from the target and the Prowler stands off during the actual attack run, the Prowler’s speed never seemed to me to be an issue. Nevertheless, the Growler’s higher max speed was a justification.
Setting aside the validity of that initial justification, we’ve now, in a relatively few short years, moved from a conventional strike package concept to very long range, manned/unmanned, stealth strikes. The Growler, as a completely non-stealthy aircraft with limited range now seems like a poor fit as a supplement to the future strike package. I’m not suggesting that we get rid of the Growler – they have many years of productive service ahead of them – but, rather, that we think very carefully before committing to any additional Growlers, as the Navy seems to be leaning towards. It may be time to look at a stealthy, long range electronic warfare aircraft, possibly even unmanned if the technology and software are sufficiently advanced (I’m doubtful but it’s worth consideration).