Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Prowlers and Growlers

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.

EA-6B Prowler


Max speed:  566 kts
Cruise speed:  418 kts
Range:  2100 mi
Electronic Warfare Hardpoints:  5
Crew:  4

EA-18G Growler

Max speed:  ?
Cruise speed:  ?
Range:  1275 nm (clean); 390 nm combat radius
Electronic Warfare Hardpoints:  5
Crew:  2

Specs are hard to come by for the Growler.  The only available data appears to be simply copied over from Hornet data sheets.  For example, the max speed that is commonly cited is not valid since the Growler will always operate with its hardpoints loaded with large, heavy pods.  Similarly, the range is undoubtedly invalid for the same reason.  To be fair, I have similar doubts about the Prowler’s cited specifications although a loaded Prowler and a loaded Intruder would probably have reasonably similar performance.

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).


  1. Aren't 'Stealth' and 'EW bird' contradictions? EW from what I've read just spews electronic noise into the air. Its like camouflaging a running Harley. It might be harder to see, but you'll always hear the blat coming out of its tailpipes.

    The only other comments I had are:
    A) does the Navy have a choice? I understand your concern, but if I recall correctly most of the E6's are older than I am. And unlike a B-52 they've been living on a carrier deck. Could the airframes just be running out of life?
    B) while the prowler may have some issues (range, etc) could some of them be (relatively) ameliorated by modifications? Give it CFT's, but make them a bigger brand of CFT than those on the Advanced Super Hornets. I know its supposed to get the next generation jammer. Maybe that can be made to be more aerodynamic? Finally, I know from my own job that new technology might be able to cut down on the number of crew needed. Perfect? No, but not just a straight 50% reduction in capability because of a 50% reduction in crew.

    I guess in my own little heart I'm alot more confident in Advanced Superhornets and Growlers with modifications doing strike work than F-35's. I have no faith the F-35 will get to the fleet by 2019. And by the time it finally does I have little faith that radar advancements during its decades long development time and the ocean environment won't have severely degraded its stealth ability. So I think successful future strikes are going to need good EW birds. If they can get the EA-6 to stay alive and relevant, I'm all over that. It would be stupid to retire them. But if they can't, I want more Growlers.

    I'd feel more comfortable if the Navy bought more Advanced superhornets or retrofitted the ones it has, more Growlers/Prowlers, got LRASM and a longer range AMRAAM (is there such a thing as an ALRAAM?), and used those as a cheaper stop gap to build a modern, but not X-wing level, carrier aircraft for the future.

    Lets not perceived perfect be the enemy of good enough.

    1. Jim, there's no contradiction between stealth and EW, if that's what you're asking. EW makes it harder for an enemy to find and target aircraft which is exactly what stealth does but via a different mechanism. Of course, the EW plane does announce its location but that's why they operate from a standoff distance.

      I hope you didn't misunderstand the post. I'm not calling for a return to Prowlers or an end to Growlers. I'm just suggesting that military trends have rendered the Growler less useful than they were orignially envisioned (happens to every platform eventually) and that we should think carefully before procuring any more.

      As far as workload, I certainly understand that better interfaces can reduce workload but the ALQ-99 is the same pod that the Prowlers use and I'm dubious that we've really reduced the workload sufficiently. It's actually not 4 to 2. It's actually 3 to 1 when you pull the pilot out of the numbers. I suspect that the reduction to 2 (or 1, in reality) operators is due to the space limitation in the Hornet rather than the result of an optimized study of workload requirements. In other words, rather than design a new EW plane sized for the necessary workload, we forced the workload to fit into the plane.

    2. CNO, yes, that was what I was asking. I had posed it as a question but it got cut off when I published. :-)

      I think I see what you're saying, don't purchase more prowlers unless we know they'll do us good.

      I think what might be happening here is about half naval concern (they are worried that they won't have enough of anything in terms of EW aircraft) and half hedging their bets with the F-35 by trying to send money Boeing's way to keep the line up if/when the Lightning II death spirals.

      As to the usefulness, what is the timetable on the Next Gen Jammer? Might that not improve things quite a bit (no matter what the platform)?

      I guess the way I see things, the Navy has a role in defending the sea lines from aggressor navies, and supporting our treaties in the Pacific (mainly). That means anti-ship and strike.

      The more I think of this, given our budgetary situation, the more I wonder if we need to find some way of doing a SuperHornet II (another redesign) to make it bigger (longer ranged) and faster (can get to trouble and flee) as our fleet fighter to handle fleet defense/strike.

      But more importantly, it seems like we could really use some of what I always thought were the 'plain jane' subsonic platforms. A bigger, robust, high subsonic jet that can perform alot of the roles needed for a carrier air wing.

      Reading about the Viking it did ASW, EW, and tanker work. Those are alot of very valuable roles. It *seems* to my uneducated mind that you could build a plane like that without breaking the bank, and let it fill all those important roles.


  2. CNO,

    I do not have the numbers handy, but I think the E-18G actually comes out on top of the EA-6 for fuel/range - yes it is a major surprise to those outside the community.

    In short, the E-18G actually does the job of providing EW to a strike package better than an E-6

    That said, the real EW asset missing from the fleet is a replacement for the EA-3B. The whale could carry more jamming gear than the EA-6 or E-18G, plus fuel to serve as a true tanker, *and* another 6,000 lbs of ordinance. The implications for a carrier task force were obvious - an EA-3B could launch, fly out on the threat axis as an EW asset for the fleet, perform tanker missions for CAP and returning strike packages, perform surface surveillance at much greater ranges than any helicopter due to its ability to put a radar above 20k feet, and carry enough ordinance to do SUCAP.. In short, the A-3 was not a good strategic bomber (its intended mission), but it was a massive dump truck that could add a lot of different capabilities to an entire task force.

    If I were building out naval aviation, I would not worry about the growler, I would want a modernized aircraft somewhere between the size of an A-6 and an A-3 that could do the EW mission, the MPA mission, serve as a mission tanker (possibly with a kit to do USAF planes), and give it the ability to deliver a lot of ordinance (think aerial mine warfare).


    1. CNO,
      A clarification: by EW for the fleet, I mean a different capability than the type of EW used for the SEAD mission, which the E-18G is optimized for.

    2. GAB, I'm working off publicly available data. I did note that I considered both sets of data to be suspect. That said, the specs on the base platforms for both aircraft strongly suggest that the Prowler would have much greater range. That, that said, I've found your information to be consistently correct so I'll gladly accept your statement if you're confident in it,

      Your comment about the Whale is interesting. There is no public information on its capabilities beyond generic statements so I have no basis for comparing its capabilities (or an updated version) to a Prowler/Growler or no means to place its use in a tactical context. Similarly, the ES-3A Shadow seemed like a good platform that could prove useful today but there is no public info on its performance.

      Thanks for jumping in!

    3. Whoops,

      I was wrong about the fuel range comparison - I was thinking of the KA-6 versus tanking capacity of a tanker pod equipped F-18.


    4. For more detailed radius/endurance numbers on the EA-6B, look here.


      I don't know of any similar numbers for the EA-18G.

  3. I believe from you picture the 2 pods inner wing are fuel and the 3 (centre line and outer) are self-contained jammer pods, powered themselves from rather funky little forward “propeller” arrangements on the front. [ I think you can just see them there. ]
    The concept is \ was that they are heavily automated. Assessing pre-set frequency bandwidth and “attacking” whilst leaving friendly bandwidths open.
    This I think accounts for the range and loss of 2 personnel whilst maintaining a high level of functionality.
    Now my understanding ( though I have no special knowledge ) is this is not intelligent waveform attack the likes of which we may someday see from the F35 AESA ( its promised has a cool video of youtube, and may well never come to be ) i.e. targeted combined waveform constructive interference patterns. So theoretically is eminently detectable and trackable via ESM. Therefor you don’t need a stealthy platform, and you do want to keep it from you strike packages general area.
    Ideally you do need a few of these in a constantly moving pattern saturating an area. I would think.

  4. Not sure of the use of Hornet/Growler strike packages in the pacific (against China). The aircraft carriers would have to move closer than you would want plus you run up against the Chinese air force etc. Surely tomahawk/ UCLASS combo offers more survivability?

    Not sure if this is true: