Wednesday, April 02, 2003

EA-6B Prowler

I recently noticed, in video from the deck of one of our Aircraft Carriers, that the A-6 jet fighter that was being launched seemed to have an extra window. Now, the A-6 is known as our oldest carrier-based fighter, which was distinctive for its side-by-side seating and its use in an anti-radiation role. That's a very dangerous mission - to attract the attention of a surface to air missile site radar, and then to shoot a HARM (high speed, anti-radiation missile) at the radar that was "painting" the fighter in order to shoot it down. The A-6 had taken over for the F-4 Phantom "Wild Weasel" of Viet Nam fame but, rather than the rakish lines of the legendary Phantom jet, the A-6 was rather, well, dowdy. That look didn't go with the penache of what is, arguably, the most dangerous job in aviation.

What happened to the A-6? In this day of newer, better, faster, sleeker combat tools, why wasn't the vererable fighter being mothballed? The story is not like the story of the B-52, which was, slowly, steadily, improved and renewed as the years went by. The A-6 was redesigned, and rebuilt from the wheels up. While the A-6 was first deployed in 1960, the first EA-6B Prowler was not flown until 1971, when the need for an electronic countermeasures platform became obvious. This was not a mere upgrade, since the fuselage had to be lengthened to allow for the addition of an additional pair of crewmembers. The venerable little bomber, which actually delivered more ordnance than the B-52 in the Viet Nam war, became a high-tech platform for the latest electronic gear.

So, while the old A-6 was retired after the first Gulf war, the EA-6B Prowler is still a required part of the complement of every Aircraft Carrier, and the Marines forward deploy them everywhere they go. When I was a little boy, the A-6 was the latest thing. The idea of making it an electronic warfare platform with a crew of four seemed, well, quaint. But here we are, decades later, and the little bomber has been retired, while its big brother soldiers on, carrying the latest gear, with a mission that the military finds absolutely necessary to its offensive operations. There's hope for us old guys yet.