The fielding of the EA-6B Prowler tactical jammer aircraft in 1970 brought about some significant changes to doctrine and organization in carrier air wings. Previously, electronic warfare was something of an odd duck in the air wing. Typically at that time, an air wing would have two squadrons of fighters, two of light attack, a medium attack squadron, and an airborne early warning squadron. The wing would also host some detachments of odds and ends, such as a couple of A-3 variants as electronic warfare support and tanker, a helo detachment for plane guard and utility use, and maybe a couple of reconnaissance planes.
The sophisticated Prowler, combined with the Navy’s growing recognition of the value of both standoff and escort jamming in the face of the North Vietnamese air defenses, led the Navy to organize Prowlers in squadrons of four aircraft. Each Prowler seats a crew of four, and as a planning factor, a squadron generally has 1.5 crews per plane, or roughly 24 flight crew. Of the Prowler crew, only one is an aviator. The other three were Naval Flight Officers known as ECMOs or Electronic CounterMeasures Officers. The Prowler community was one of the first where the NFO community was arguably more important than the aviators. After all, anyone could drive the bus, but the skills of the ECMOs were quite specialized. At any rate, with only four planes, a Prowler squadron would have more aircrew than a light attack squadron with 12 planes. These Prowler squadrons would be designated Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadrons (or TACELRONS) with the designator VAQ. For instance, the Fleet Replacement Squadron is VAQ-129.
It took several years for the Prowler to fully enter the fleet. While deployed aboard a carrier, a Prowler squadron would report to the commander of that carrier’s air wing. When in home port, the squadron reported to the Commander, Medium Attack/Tactical Electronic Warfare Wing, Pacific Fleet (or COMMATVAQWINGPAC) at NAS Whidbey Island, WA, where all the Navy’s active Prowler squadrons were based.
As the 70s and 80s wore on, the size of Naval Aviation varied somewhat, and so to did the size of the Prowler fleet. The Reagan era build up saw an expansion in the number of air wings, and so to the number of Prowler squadrons.
Concurrently, the Air Force, seeing the same challenges in a future air defense environment, looked to leave behind its legacy fleet of EB-57 and EB-66 stand off jammers, and integrate a modern, supersonic escort jammer. And so in the early 1970s, began a program to modify some early production F-111A Aardvarks to carry a version of the Prowler’s ALQ-99 jammer system.
Entering into service in 1983, a total of 42 were delivered to the Air Force by 1985, serving in five different squadrons. Officially nicknamed the Raven, the EF-111A was almost universally known instead as the Spark ‘Vark. The Spark ‘Vark served admirably, particularly in Desert Storm, providing the same jamming support Naval Aviation had come to count upon.
But soon after Desert Storm, and with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the subsequent so-called “peace dividend” drawdown, the Air Force made the decision to retire its F-111 fleet. And with that fleet gone, it was only a matter of time before supporting the EF-111A became prohibitively expensive.
Rather than spending the time and money to develop a replacement aircraft, the Air Force simply threw up its hands and said “we quit.” The Air Force simply forfeited what by now was known as the Electronic Attack mission.
But that didn’t mean the Air Force didn’t recognize the need for a dedicated Electronic Attack platform. Instead, it recognized that fielding its own platform was duplicative of costs. There was a perfectly good platform already in the Prowler. And in keeping with the Air Force ethos of central airpower management, the Air Force also didn’t see any reason why the Air Force should buy a platform already in service, duplicating the logistical tail involved.
Instead, the Air Force just decided the Navy would provide all its Electronic Attack assets in any future air campaign.
Now, the Navy didn’t really object to this. The only issues would be money for airframes and maintenance, and manpower to support such campaigns. After all, the Navy barely had enough Prowlers and crews to support its deploying carrier air wings. And there was no guarantee that a carrier air wing would be available to support any notional Air Force air campaign.
The Marines, operating their own Prowlers, quickly informed any and all that they were quite busy supporting Marine Air Wings and had no great desire to add any additional taskings, than you very much.
And so an odd hybrid series VAQ squadron was born. The Navy would buy extra Prowlers, and stand up the squadrons. The Air Force would not complain about Navy requests for funding for procurement and operations. Further, the Air Force would supply about half the personnel for the squadrons.
Known as Expeditionary squadrons, these VAQs would forego some of the training that traditional Navy VAQs went to, such as carrier qualification. Instead, these squadrons would be available to support taskings to a Combatant Command Air Component Commander.
With the retirement of the medium attack community COMMATVAQWINGPAC eventually evolved into Commander Electronic Attack Wing Pacific or COMVAQWINGPAC (oddly, as there’s no counterpart on the Atlantic side. COMVAQWINGPAC supports air wings in both the Atlantic and Pacific fleets, as well as all of what are now known as Joint Expeditionary Squadrons).
All the VAQ squadrons, both fleet and Joint Expeditionary, have either transitioned from the Prowler to the EA-18G Growler, or will shortly. In addition to the “schoolhouse” squadron, VAQ-129, VAQ-130 through VAQ-142 are currently stationed at NAS Whidbey. Additionally, VAQ-209, a Reserve squadron, is stationed at Whidbey. Three squadrons are currently Joint Expeditionary. Two new squadrons, VAQ-143 and VAQ-144 are expected to be established in the next couple years, and both with be Joint Expeditionary.
There’s one other interesting squadron at NAS Whidbey. Housing quite a few Air Force personnel at a Navy base is a tad unusual for those Airmen. There are quite a few things the Navy and the Air Force do differently. Where the rubber meets the road, most of the time, the integrated squadrons work well. But for certain personnel management issues, the Air Force needs its own on sight leadership. And so, to act as the parent command for Air Force personnel at Whidbey, the 390th Electronic Combat Squadron is stationed at NAS Whidbey. It’s not an operational squadron, and doesn’t own any planes. It serves instead as “ownership’’ of all the Air Force personnel.