North Vietnam’s air defenses were among the most advanced of their day, rivaling those deployed around Moscow. The diversity of radars and integrated weapons coverage made defense suppression support essential to any tactical strike mission. The EA-6B Prowler marked the U.S. Navy’s recognition that modern air defense systems could not be defeated by evasive approach tactics and kinetic strikes alone. The integrated monitoring and jamming systems of the Prowler, along with its computer-assisted analysis and countermeasures systems, often made the difference between a successful mission with light losses or a costly one.
The EA-6B evolved from the lessons learned in Korea and concerns about the Soviet Union’s emerging surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems. Convinced its latest electronic warfare (EW) aircraft would not meet its future tactical requirements, the Navy issued a formal specification for an advanced EW aircraft in November 1964. Grumman had developed and initiated production of the EA-6A, a heavily modified EW variant of its A-6 Intruder all-weather attack plane.
The Navy called for an aircraft with the range, speed and handling characteristics to accompany its tactical strike planes to the target, with the equipment to detect and counter all known and expected Soviet air defense radar and radar-guided missile systems. The A-6 met all the requirements, including the specified load-carrying capacity. Its airframe was lengthened to accommodate the additional avionics and aircrew. The resulting 4-seat design went from mockup to production in initial operational capability in five years.
Declared fully operational in July 1971, the EA-6B flew its first combat missions over North Vietnam during Operations End Sweep and Linebacker II in 1972. The Prowlers jammed North Vietnamese radars and communications in support of tactical strikes and high-altitude attacks. The aircrafts’ successes convinced the Navy that every carrier air wing should include an EA-6B squadron, and it initiated production to equip eight 4- plane squadrons by 1975.
The EA-6B’s AN/ALQ-99 Tactical Jamming Systems (TJS) pods initially covered only four of the seven radio-electromagnetic bands then used by the Soviet Union, but its coverage was expanded to eight bands by late 1973. More important, the plane acquired new expanded memory computers to assist the operators’ signal processing and analysis capabilities, tripling the number of radars the operators could detect, analyze and attack.
Further pod upgrades enabled the Prowler to deceive SAM acquisition and fire-control radars, and terminal guidance signals expanded the EA-6B’s mission from standoff jamming support to accompanying strike aircraft into the target area to augment their self-protection systems. Despite the new mission, not one EA-6B was lost to enemy action or other operational causes in Vietnam or any of its combat operations since.
Although it wasn’t Hanoi’s intent, North Vietnam’s air defense network and tactics shaped American aircraft design and air attack tactics for the rest of the century. With its almost constant series of upgrades, new systems and procedures, the Prowler still serves and is expected to continue doing so.
Originally published in the April 2010 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.