by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
The EA-6B Prowler—one of the United States’ oldest warplanes—won’t be around in a few years. But until then, the bulbous, twin-engine jet will spend its time scrambling Islamic State’s radios and cell phones.
Navy Prowlers attached to the aircraft carrier USS George H. W. Bush first jammed Islamic State last year. But the Navy’s EA-6Bs left the area in November as the Bush returned home.
Now the Marine Corps is flying the EA-6B over Iraq from an undisclosed air base, officials with the Marines’ Middle East headquarters tell War Is Boring.
The Prowler first flew in 1971 … and it’s still flying.
An aging electronic warfare plane designed to scramble enemy radars, the Prowler can now shut down everything from a jihadi’s smartphone to bombs triggered by garage door openers.
The warplanes—part of Marine Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron Four—arrived just as the Navy’s EA-6Bs left. The Marines’ Prowlers are part of a new crisis response force in the Middle East.
Given the nature of the Prowler’s mission, the Pentagon considers the veteran airplane a highly sensitive asset—and officials are tight-lipped about what the plane can precisely do.
The jets—a stretched version of the now-obsolete A-6 bomber—can carry missiles for homing in and destroying radar transmitters. The Prowler can also detect Islamic State signals, which is useful for gathering intelligence.
But despite the Navy’s EA-6Bs leaving the Middle East, the sailing branch still has its own jammers in the region. The flattop USS Carl Vinson is in the Persian Gulf with a squadron of considerably more modern EA-18G Growler electronic-attack jets.
For security reasons, Marine officials didn’t describe their specialized Prowlers’ day-to-day activities in the Middle East. Similarly, “electronic warfare” was the only description the Navy gave us of their EA-6B missions last year.
The warplanes might be trying to block Islamic State’s surface-to-air missiles, which the jihadis used to shoot down two Iraqi helicopters last year. However, these missiles do not appear to be the radar-guided types vulnerable to the Prowler’s jammers.
The militants’ anti-aircraft weapons haven’t threatened high-flying American fighters and bombers. After a Jordanian F-16 crashed in Iraq in December, the Pentagon quickly denied reports that the Islamists shot down the plane.
But the militants might have other equipment the EA-6Bs can track down.
In late November, American aircraft destroyed a “jamming system” and an “electronic warfare garrison” Islamic State operated in Syria, according to the Defense Department.
Most likely, the Prowlers’ powerful jamming pods are targeting cell phones and other devices used to set off roadside bombs. Improvised mines remain a major threat in Iraq, blocking Kurdish fighters and Iraqi militias from advancing.
While they’re at it, the Marine EA-6Bs could cut off some of Islamic State’s propaganda broadcasts. The group regularly takes to the airwaves—and the Internet—to promote their agenda and recruit new followers.
The Marines haven’t said where the aircraft are situated or how many of them the unit has altogether. Official pictures show at least four of the squadron’s Prowlers parked together at an unknown Middle Eastern base.
In total, the task force has more than 2,500 Marines spread across Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait and Yemen, according to a recent briefing. These troops train Iraqi and Jordanian troops, guard U.S. diplomatic posts and help out with American allies.
However, private satellites have caught nine V-22 Osprey tilt-rotors—possibly part of the same Marine air-ground unit—sitting on the runway at Ahmed Al Jaber Air Base in Kuwait, according to a report by aviation journalist and War Is Boring contributor David Cenciotti.
Besides the Ospreys, the task force could include F/A-18 Hornet fighter bombers, AV-8 Harrier jump jets and KC-130 Hercules tankers, according to an earlier report from Stars and Stripes.
Hornets and Harriers have already struck Islamic State in Iraq and Syria from carriers and amphibious assault ships in the Persian Gulf.
Wherever the jets are based, the deployment is just the latest in the Prowler’s four decades with the Marines. The leathernecks flew the EA-6Bs during the first Persian Gulf War and over the Balkans in the 1990s.
Unlike their Navy counterparts—which retired the Prowler last year—the Marines plan to keep the jets until 2019. The service isn’t buying Boeing’s replacement EA-18G Growler, according to their 2015 aviation plan, preferring F-35s and drones instead.
In the meantime, the Marines’ venerable Prowlers will spend their closing days in Iraq. Somewhere out there, there’s a militant with a jammed cell phone who’s going to be really pissed.