When American or allied pilots have to bomb a target, they know that the enemy on the ground will try his level best to kill them. That's why they turn to the Prowler.
The Navy's EA-6B Prowler is an electronic warfare (EW) platform that uses sensors, jammers and missiles to find, blind and destroy enemy air defense systems and communications. The Prowler was delivered to the fleet almost 30 years ago but carries more responsibility than ever before, thanks in part to the Strike Aircraft Test Squadron at Naval Air Station Patuxent River.
"The airframe itself is getting old, but the systems on board are continually being upgraded to meet the emerging electronic warfare threat," said Lt. Cmdr. Mike Breslauer, EA-6B project officer for Strike.
Strike's EA-6B program tests the new systems that are being developed to keep the aging Prowler viable. According to EA-6B platform coordinator Lt. Cmdr. Kevin Gish, the Prowler's effectiveness must be maintained because it is the only tactical jamming aircraft in the Defense Department inventory. "The Air Force retired its jamming platform, the EF-111, a couple years ago. Now we cover not only the Navy but also the Air Force. So recently, with operations in Kosovo, over half of the flyable EA-6Bs were deployed around the world," he said.
Navy Prowlers also fly with air forces of friendly nations during allied operations. "Since Desert Storm, we've proved again and again that proper use of electronic warfare saves lives in the air," Breslauer said. "In Kosovo, it was a big issue. Everybody wants Prowler support; they're not flying without them."
Not only does the Prowler bear sole responsibility for the tactical jamming mission, but it faces ever-improving radars and communication systems employed against strike aircraft in ever more sophisticated ways. To meet these increased challenges, the EA-6B Program Office recently completed developmental testing on three major upgrades in a matter of a few months, according to Barbara Weathers, EA-6B project coordinator. These are the Block 89A upgrade, the Multi-mission Advanced Tactical Terminal/Improved Data Modem (MATT/IDM), and the SSA 5.2 operational flight software upgrade.
"Block 89A is a communications and navigation upgrade to help us fit in better with both joint forces and other services that have different equipment," Breslauer explained. "It also has more accurate navigation assists for targeting and location of enemy radars."
The MATT/IDM enables the four-person crew of the Prowler to receive secure digital transmissions about the location of threats from command-and-control centers, then integrate that information into situational displays in the cockpit, Breslauer said.
"It lets us see farther out. If someone else has detected a radar, the information can be passed on to us electronically, so we can see what's actually operating in the target area before we get close," he said. "You can make a much better game plan that way."
"The IDM allows us to communicate digitally now rather than over voice comms," he added. "We're working toward the network-centric warfare concept."
SSA 5.2 is a new version of the operational flight software used by the three electronic countermeasure officers (ECMOs) that occupy the cockpit with the Prowler pilot. The software improves the capabilities of the Prowler's only weapon, the AGM-88 HARM (high-speed anti-radiation missile). According to Navy data, the HARM can operate in a number of modes to home in on enemy radar emitters and destroy them with its 150-pound blast fragmentation warhead. The SSA 5.2 upgrade allows the Prowler crew to employ the HARM in a wider range of situations than previously possible.
While the Block 89A upgrade has moved on to operational testing, both the MATT/IDM and the SSA 5.2 upgrades have completed operational testing and been deployed to aircraft in the fleet. The next Prowler improvement slated for developmental testing at Pax is the ICAP (Improved Capability) III upgrade, which includes a new receiver to enhance the Prowler's mission effectiveness. Additionally, a low-band transmitter will improve the aircraft's ability to jam at lower frequencies, Breslauer said. Fiber-optic data buses are also in development, to decrease weight and reduce electromagnetic interference.
One of the greatest challenges to improving the Prowler is integrating cutting-edge technologies into a very old airframe. "There's so much legacy equipment you have to deal with," Breslauer said. Like adding new components to an older computer, he explained, each new improvement may have incompatibilities with outdated components.
The Prowler is also undergoing structural renovations to increase its service life. To combat metal fatigue and improve the plane's performance envelope, the EA-6B is being refitted with a new central wing section, Gish said. In a related program, Strike's Prowler test group recently completed testing of the structural data recording system (SDRS), Weathers said. The SDRS monitors fatigue in the airframe and helps extend aircraft life expectancy. According to Breslauer, although the Prowler is getting on in years, this stalwart electronic warrior is slated to stay with the fleet through 2015. Until the Navy brings a newer platform to the fight, the EA-6B project office at Pax is determined to keep their aircraft the bane of enemy air defenses around the world.