Jamming or Deception

In the first of a two-part feature, Mark Ayton details the training mission of Electronic Attack Squadron 129, the schoolhouse and repository of electronic attack in the US Navy


EA-18G Growler BuNo 169137/NJ525 a second from touch down during a bounce.

Whidbey Island is located 30 miles north of Seattle in Washington State. It’s farming country and a tourist destination. Quaint shoreline towns, beaches, forest and lakes make the island idyllic. The largest city is Oak Harbor, three miles south of the island’s largest employer, Naval Air Station Whidbey Island. The air station supports three tactical missions: signals intelligence gathering, maritime surveillance and electronic attack.

Two aviation wings are based at Whidbey Island. Commander Patrol and Reconnaissance Wing 10 (CPRW-10) with six patrol squadrons operating either the P-3C Orion or the P-8A Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft and one aerial reconnaissance squadron flying the EP-3E Aries II signals intelligence aircraft. Commander Electronic Attack Wing Pacific (CVWP) with 14 electronic attack squadrons all equipped with the EA-18G Growler.

By official US Navy definition, electronic attack can be either jamming or deception. Jamming refers to the use of electronic transmissions to swamp a radar receiver and hide (technically conceal) the targets (friendly aircraft in the battlespace). Deception refers to the use of electronic transmissions to forge false target signals that a radar receiver accepts and processes as real targets.


The largest aviation unit based at Whidbey is Electronic Attack Squadron 129 (VAQ- 129) ‘Vikings’, the EA-18G Growler Fleet Replacement Squadron (FRS). Compared to an operational fleet squadron with five or six jets and 200 personnel assigned, VAQ-129 has 41 jets, 400 enlisted, 200 officers and 200 civilian personnel in its billet. Not only is VAQ-129 the largest Growler squadron and the FRS, but it is also classed as a Major Command – Sequential (formally known as a sequential command), which is a second screened command to which a US Navy officer with the rank of Captain is assigned, as designated by the Chief of Naval Operations. The prerequisite for selection is a previous major command, such as squadron commander. The objective is to select an officer who can bring operational command experience to the FRS, in this case VAQ-129. The current skipper of VAQ-129 is Captain Trevor Estes, an experienced EA-6B pilot and former commander of Electronic Attack Squadron 137 (VAQ-137) ‘Rooks’. Capt Estes says VAQ-129 has two missions that support each other. One is to train and graduate new crews to fill seats in the operational fleet squadrons. The other is to be the repository of personnel skilled in electronic warfare and electronic attack and aircraft for the CVWP and the operational squadrons.

For a seven-year period that concluded in April 2016, VAQ-129 was responsible for transitioning all 14 squadrons assigned to the CVWP from the EA-6B Prowler to the EA- 18G Growler, and teaching the operational squadrons to fly the new jet.

Growler School

VAQ-129 runs six classes per year. Each class comprises about 15 individuals enrolled on the multiphase, 52-week course designed for Ensigns and Lieutenants (junior grade) fresh out of flight school and without previous experience of flying the Growler.

Shorter courses are staged for Lieutenant Commanders returning to the Growler community and officers who are returning to complete their department head tour after completing the Prospective Commanding Officer Course or the Prospective Executive Officer Leadership Course at the Naval War College at Newport, Rhode Island.

One of the interesting facts about the course is that student pilots and electronic warfare officers (EWOs) are paired up for the entire time. All instruction and training instils tactical crew coordination (TCC) as the mindset from word go because pilots and EWOs will always fly together; the curriculum only differs for pilots who have to fly extra events to learn how to fly, handle and operate the jet.

Pilots arrive at VAQ-129 from a training squadron where they will have flown the T-45 Goshawk. Lt Eric Hohler, an instructor pilot with VAQ-129, reckons the Growler is stable and an easy aircraft to fly: “Its flying properties are pretty much the same as the T-45, but the systems are very different. The T-45 does not have afterburner, so the Growler has a lot more thrust and accelerates much faster, so it can really get away from you when you are not used to it. The student must also get used to the Growler’s sight picture, which looks a little different from what they saw in the T-45 Goshawk.”

The aircraft is equipped with HOTAS (hands-on throttle and stick) controls, which provide excellent ergonomics to the EWO and the pilot: Lt Hohler described what it is like to operate: “The EWO uses two joysticks, each covered in switches and buttons, to control almost everything without touching the screens. Similarly, the pilot can fly HOTAS and still be able to manipulate cursors to command most functions of the jet via menus. It’s an amazing aircraft to fly.”


Like all other fast jet pilot training syllabuses, the Growler course starts with a basic familiarisation (FAM) stage, during which the student learns how to start up and shut down the engines, and turn on systems. This is followed by the FAM stage, during which the pilot learns how to fly the jet in accordance with the Naval Air Training and Operating Procedures Standardization (NATOPS) programme.

The very first FAM flight is flown in a Growler trainer (GT), a variant equipped with a stick and throttle in the back seat that the instructor pilot can use, if required. All subsequent FAM flights are flown with an instructor EWO in a standard Growler. That means the student is the only one with controls, though there is a little knob in the floor of the aft cockpit that the instructor EWO can use to manipulate the flight controls, but with no throttles.

Lt Hohler credited the training squadrons, saying: “We have not had any instances requiring an instructor EWO to input some control on the aircraft, nor when we had to give a student a second flight in a GT and another pilot.”

Formation flying

This second phase comprises just four flights, because the students have already done a lot of formation flying with their training squadron. They know the basics and understand the geometry and how it works. Lt Hohler said: “The difference with the Growler [compared to the T-45] is again the sight picture, what they can expect to see and how it’s going to look at the rendezvous with their wingman, the difference in power and how the aircraft responds and handles.”

All four flights are flown in a standard jet with an instructor EWO who monitors what the pilot is doing. The rendezvous and join up with other Growlers is set up by an instructor pilot who watches each student joining up with the formation from another jet to make sure nobody is too far out of the parameters.


The air-to-air phase accounts for 33% of the syllabus and covers all-weather intercepts (AWIs) and air-to-air counter tactics (AACT). According to Capt Estes: “It’s introduced as a secondary mission and very much with a defensive mind set.”

Explaining further, the squadron skipper said: “We conduct within visual range [WVR], then beyond visual range [BVR] air-to-air combat, with the understanding that if a Growler is caught up in a WVR fight the crew are fighting for their lives. We train with the mindset that it’s a self-protection requirement and do not use a fighter pilot persona. Being armed with two AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles helps us get closer to the fight, because we can self-protect and it allows us to assume slightly more risk and provide better electronic attack support to the overall strike package. Our air-to-air training comprises just two-plane engagements, two-plane targeting, because that’s how we fly in the fleet.”

In the AWI stage, students learn basic radar manipulation using the APG-79 AESA radar and how to use the radar to look at the geometry and rendezvous on another aircraft, one that is not part of their fight.

Lt Hohler said: “That’s an intercept, but they might also go alongside if they are required to escort the aircraft or they might get in behind the aircraft if they need to simulate shooting it down. Teaching them how to look at the radar and interpret what they are seeing and what angle they need to go to and how to manoeuvre the jet to get in a good position to rendezvous on another aircraft is a big thing for the students.” Pilots have no radar training until the AWI phase, so this is the first time the student pilot flies an aircraft equipped with a radar; the T-45 Goshawk has no radar. By comparison, student EWOs do undertake radar training with their training squadron using the Virtual Mission Training System (VMTS), a very capable radar simulator in the T-45’s aft cockpit. The system generates a radar picture very similar to an APG-series system. In addition to the cockpit display, according to Boeing, a datalink allows an instructor on the ground to monitor virtual radar screens that mirror exactly what the student sees during fiight. Sitting at a ground station (a computer terminal and screen), the instructor can simulate virtual air-to-air and surface-to-air scenarios to the student while in fiight. The VMTS also records the NFO’s radar for the entire fiight, allowing the student to play back and critique the session. Students receive instruction on the APG-79 in covering for example what’s required to steer the radar to the proper sector of sky to look at the target.

Lt Hohler rates the APG-79: “It’s a great radar, very easy to operate with a 4 x 4-inch display. We instruct the student on the way it displays information, which can be hard to interpret if you don’t know what it’s showing you. We call it target aspect. When an opposing jet is pointing straight at you, it’s got zero-degree target aspect, or maybe 30° target aspect if the jet is a bit off to the left or right. We teach them how to interpret the radar picture so when a track gets to a given part of the display, it has to be at this angle and this far off the scope.”

In the follow-on AACT stage, students learn about surface-to-air and AACT in the WVR and BVR environments.

Lt Hohler explained: “All AACT sorties are flown for self-defence purposes, trying to remain at a longer range from the threat aircraft where the AIM-120 AMRAAM is a great weapon, but pilots need to know what to do in a WVR scenario if that ever happens. The first couple of fiights involve flying counter tactics, manoeuvring the jet in a WVR scenario, flown in a GT aircraft with an instructor pilot. The scenarios involve two jets coming at each other at high speed and close range, and flying the jet to the edge of its handling envelope, so you need an instructor in the back seat that has controls.”

To support students in the AWI and AACT stages, VAQ-129 stages fighter Dets to Naval Air Station Fallon Nevada or Naval Air Station Key West, Florida.

Between AACT and the Airborne Electronic Attack (AEA) phase, student aircrew often fly sorties to practise aerial refuelling and lowlevel for the fighter transition syllabus.

Airborne Electronic Attack

AEA accounts for 50% of the syllabus and is by its very nature the biggest, most dynamic and most difficult phase for pilots and EWOs. To succeed in the AEA phase, students must become very familiar with the display menus used to operate systems such as the ALQ- 99 tactical jamming pod, ALQ-218 sensor system (encompassing a radar warning receiver, electronic support measures and electronic intelligence), the AGM-88 High- Speed Anti-Radiation Missile and the AGM- 88E Advanced Anti-Radiation Guided Missile.

Discussing the AEA mission, Lt Hohler said the biggest issue for the pilot and the EWO is task management: “There is so much information in the jet. They have to figure out what the most important information is at the time and what information they can chose to ignore.”

At this point in the story it’s appropriate to consider two aspects of AEA in the Growler. One: it’s a two-seat aircraft compared to its predecessor, the four-seat EA-6B Prowler, and two, consequently crew resource management and the TCC chain is vital, with half the number of aircrew on board to undertake mission tasks.

Generally, the Prowler was a harder aircraft to fly and less forgiving than the Growler. Consequently, the Prowler pilot assigned much more time to concentrating on flying the aircraft, whereas a Growler pilot has many more mission-specific tasks to do; thanks to pilot relief modes and auto pilot, however, the jet is easier to fly.

The TCC chain is a ladder of responsibilities assigned by priority to the pilot and the EWO. Pilot responsibility starts with safety of fiight (making sure the aircraft is clear of other aircraft and in a good position for jamming), air-to-air picture (making sure there are no threat aircraft nearby), air-toground (making sure the aircraft is in the correct position to take a proper HARM missile shot), electronic attack and electronic surveillance. The EWO’s ladder starts with electronic surveillance and electronic attack and ascends the ladder in reverse order to the pilot.

The instructor sets up their displays and teaches the student where to place them to follow the TCC chain. Lt Hohler said:

An EA-18G Growler and a B-1B Lancer assigned to the 28th Bomb Wing during a VAQ-129 Det at Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota.
94th Airlift Wing/US Air Force

“Typically my display shows just positioning information and a good air-to-air picture, because the EWO is concentrating on the ground picture and making sure we have the right systems set-up for jamming. Once I’ve concluded with any air-to-air threats and HARM shots, I use a display that shows an overview of our jamming assignments and what power we have coming from each of our jammer pods. The display is set up in an intuitive way that’s easy to regularly glance at so, I can give the EWO a heads up on any power drop-off issues with any of the assignments. Remember, the EWO is typically concerned with pop-up threats, where the strikers are going and whether they are covered OK, and may not therefore necessarily see the power drop off a pod. My advisory alerts them to troubleshoot. As an instructor, the big thing for me to teach a student is how to manage all the information and what priority to put the tasks in. That’s the biggest part of the AEA phase.”

Discussing how an instructor conveys the importance of positioning and staying in the right area to manage risk, Lt Hohler said it’s not just to students, but also experienced pilots, because the scenario can become very complicated very quickly, depending on what you are doing and who you are working with: “We try to make it as plain as possible. This is where you need to be. You can set up the navigation system to be at a point. We provide instruction on the dangers advising students that if they go, for example, further north than the required position, then they may get shot down, because they are going within the range of the missile. That’s not within the boundaries of the Growler’s ALR [allowable level of risk].”

The EA-18G Growler is the only tactical jamming platform in the US inventory and is classed as a national asset, because there are only a limited number in the fleet.

To comply with the ALRs, Growler crews position their aircraft further back to remain outside the missile system engagement zones dubbed range rings.

“Thankfully, nobody has run into trouble in combat, but it has happened during training. A pilot may get distracted and think the threat is somewhere else and start to avoid it until he or she realises they are in the range ring. That’s a serious mess for the pilot who must fight their way out of the range ring. One of the most important aspects of training is keeping the plan straightforward. If the plan is too complicated it’s much harder for the pilot to keep the aircraft safe.”

Lt Hohler said instructors try to make tactics intuitive for students and re-emphasised the importance of the TCC chain: “That’s why in the TCC chain, the pilot’s number one priority is safety of flight, and number two is positioning. We always tell student pilots if there’s too much going on [so-called task saturation] and you can’t think of what else to do, put the jet in the right section of sky, so the EWO can do [his or her] job and get the jamming down range. That goes back to prioritising which tasks are important at which time, which is the main part of AEA.”

1 SSgt Sandra Welch/US Air Force 2 An EA-18G Growler receives fuel from a KC-135 Stratotanker during a training sortie from Naval Air Station Whidbey Island. SSgt Julianne Showalter/US Air Force 3 Senior Airman John Linzmeier 4 Members of VAQ-129 pose for the camera in front of VAQ-129’s CAG-bird, EA- 18G Growler BuNo 168894/NJ550, at the end of an AEA Det at Ellsworth Air Force Base. Airman 1st Class Sadie Colbert/US Air Force

Petty Officer 3rd Class Nathan Beard/US Navy

According to Hohler, despite the Growler’s level of automation, prioritisation is not one of them: “During our briefing we talk through the TCC chain. Pilots start at the top and work down. Based on the threats we have that day, we expect the pilot and EWO to meet right about in the middle. If there is a big air threat, the pilot will be focused on the air picture and not electronic attack and electronic surveillance. If, on the other hand, there is no air threat whatsoever, the pilot is probably going to be working further down the ladder. Similarly, if there’s a robust surface-toair threat laydown, then the EWO will be focusing on electronic attack, their primary responsibility, but found at the bottom of the ladder. If the surface-to-air threat is basic and we are looking for one system, then the EWO will be able to work further up the ladder and in to the air picture a little bit more, backing up the pilot on positioning.”

The EWOs’ ability to advise the pilot depends on their level of experience. A very experienced EWO will drive a junior pilot around, if needed. Similarly, a senior pilot will advise an EWO on the status of each jamming assignment, especially those that need to be covered.

Explaining how VAQ-129 instructors teach students about the switches and menus required in the AEA phase, Lt Hohler said the basis for learning is found in standardisation bulletins issued by the Airborne Electronic Attack Weapons School, dubbed HAVOC, part of the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center (NAWDC, pronounced NAW-DIK) based at Naval Air Station Fallon, Nevada.

HAVOC develops tactics, evaluates different ways to employ the Growler for maximum effectiveness, and makes recommendations on how aircrew should set up their displays.

Lt Hohler said VAQ-129 has a standard way of configuring the displays and require the students to use the recommendations issued by the HAVOC: “If the aircrew needs to change their displays for a valid reason, to complete a part of the mission, absolutely do that, but we always tell them to try to go back to the recommended display configurations because they provide the best start. As they gain experience with their fleet squadron, they will find their own technique and display configuration that works for them. But 129’s instruction will always remain close to the recommendations issued by the HAVOC, because its specialists put a lot of work in to figuring out the best way to handle the interface between man and machine so the crew receives the appropriate information and takes the proper actions.”

Discussing the AEA phase, Capt Estes said the syllabus is split into two phases.

VAQ-129 typically flies its aircraft in a clean configuration during most phases of the course as shown by Viking 525.

AEA 1 is described above, while AEA 2 is a graduation mission involving a scenario similar to those presented in training exercises staged at Fallon: “The scenario comprises a ground-based threat laydown, an opposing air threat and an objective for the strike package. Students plan the mission in the JMPS [Joint Mission Planning System] room and then fly. The mission encompasses electronic surveillance, to determine what emitters are radiating, so the students can figure out which ones they will target, taking a look at the current laydown, understanding where the strikers are going to go, and perhaps recommending to the strikers to go somewhere else. Providing advice and recommendations to keep folks out of danger, which is often governed by pop-up mobile emitters is a typical breadand- butter task.

“We also combine electronic attack in the graduation hop, so jammers on, a HARM game plan, shooting HARM down range at the right targets and understanding the HARM dynamic when supporting a striker. Sometimes we use another Growler to simulate a striker going into a target area. On the back side, we may have an air-to-air threat flown by an instructor in a Growler and use the controller to call him as hostile so the students have to figure out how to work that threat.

” All AEA 2 graduation hops are flown on a Det to meet the requirement for extensive airspace and an emitter library not available at Whidbey.

Electronic attack is specialised mission not only within the US Navy, but also across the Department of Defense, and the EA-18G Growler currently stands as the last TACAIR platform in the US Navy that is mission specialised. Capt Estes said: “That allows us to be the absolute experts in AEA, so if a strike squadron needs to talk about beeps and squeaks or jamming that’s our forte. Consequently, we put the students through two phases of robust ground school called Airborne Aviation EW, dubbed AAEW 1 and AAEW 2.”

AAEW 1 is given before the students start ground school and instructs radar theory: how a radar detects something, aspects such as radar waves, polarisation and antenna attenuation, the electronic spectrum, foreign radar and surface-to-air missile systems with details of their different pulse widths, frequencies and scan types.

Capt Estes reckons AAEW 1 probably goes into the theory a little deeper than the students want: “But we want to set the student’s expectation that they are learning to be an expert. Our goal is to ensure all Growler aircrew can advise any member of the air wing or coalition strike package about electronic warfare or the HARM missile. It’s laying the groundwork with the Cat I students so they know how a radar works and how [radars] are becoming more agile, and why that makes our mission tougher.”

AAEW 2 is about how the Growler affects the electromagnetic spectrum, and how to keep it from enemy forces while also using it to advantage. AAEW 2 is also tailored to mission planning for specific threat systems from the Vietnam-era SA-2 Guideline (Soviet S-75 Divina) all the way up to an SA-21 Growler (Russian S-400 Triumph long-range surface-to-air defence missile system) and beyond.

Capt Estes said: “AAEW 2 is given as students are preparing for the AEA phase and tells them why certain profiles of flying are important, and when you’re moving a Growler around how you are affecting the overall coverage and aspect, and ultimately the effectiveness of protecting others or yourself as you are going into a surface-to-air missile envelope.”

VAQ-129’s AAEW classes are also attended by surface warfare officers, and aircrew from the MH-60 and P-3C Orion communities.

Capt Estes is more than aware of how students can become overwhelmed with AAEW pretty quickly, and explained how the classes are not a one-time event: “VAQ-129 provides a baseline understanding of radars and what the Growler can do. Once aircrew go to their fleet squadron, they receive continuing education in the fleet. When they start to prepare for air wing work-ups, the HAVOC will put them through a ground school and give an update of all the threat systems that have emerged around the world in the last two years. Our AAEW courses build a generic academic foundation for the follow-on academics they will have to do in the fleet.”

An EA-18G Growler climbs away from runway 14 following a bounce during field landing carrier practice at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.

Detachments in support of the AEA phase are made to Naval Air Station Fallon, Nevada, Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota and Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho. All three locations have a large range equipped with threat emitters that allow the students to practise working through and recognising signals gathered by the aircraft and then conducting electronic attack based on the threat presentation seen.

Given the crucial requirement for electronic attack in support of a strike mission, AIR International asked what kind of instruction students receive for working through a system failure when airborne. Lt Hohler replied: “That’s a go/no-go situation. When we instruct on how to support a strike package based on the minimum requirements set out by the strike lead, we set the go/nogo criteria to cover the specific requirement, which usually involves a required number of HARM missiles, jammer pods and Growler aircraft. We plan our mission to that. During the flight, the instructors call out one or more jammer pods as failed, so the students have to figure out how to coordinate how they will rearrange the assignments between, say, two aircraft, and still cover the minimum requirement. Instructors may strike out another asset, say, an F-16C, leaving the students with fewer HARMs carried by the aircraft within the strike package to still cover what the strike lead wanted. We typically arrange it so they lose assets but are still able to meet the go requirements, but we want to see how they rearrange things to still accomplish the mission.”

Smoke spools from the tires as EA-18G BuNo 169137/NJ525 bounces on runway 14 during field landing carrier practice at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.

Underlining how dynamic the electronic attack environment is, Lt Hohler described how it constantly changes depending on what other assets are working with the Growlers, what the threat is, how the threat is changing and the air picture: “There is no one good way to do it.”

The final phase of the course is carrier qualification (CQ), which will be covered in the September issue of AIR International.

Electronic Warfare Officer Training

Student EWOs arrive at VAQ-129 as Naval Flight Officers (NFOs) fresh out of Undergraduate Military Flight Officer Training with Training Wing 6 (TW-6) at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida. Pilots and NFOs join VAQ-129’s student pool and initially go through AAEW.

From the start of the course, pilots have to have a full understanding of the AEA mission and its objectives and to perform some tasks when the EWO is overwhelmed by assignments. According to Lt Rebecca Nortz, an instructor EWO with VAQ-129, even though the EWO has a specialised track pilots must have a good understanding of the electronic attack mission: “Some instructor pilots with VAQ-129 came from the strike fighter community flying Super Hornets. Even though they are experienced pilots, we spool them up with a basic AEA syllabus to provide instruction on what the jet brings to the fight, what signals it picks up, and how such information looks on the displays, which is very different from the appearance on a Super Hornet’s display.”

EWO training teaches the basics of electronic surveillance and electronic attack, all building towards an ability to mission plan, as Lt Nortz explained: “At first this includes a lot of button pushing, learning how to turn on the jammers and other systems working up to mission planning to support a strike package against a threat laydown and what their first concern should be. On ingress to the target area an EWO must try to take out some of the ground-based early warning systems. As the fighters and strike aircraft ingress into a threat area, the EWO shuts down the surface-to-air missile systems and maybe jams airborne enemy radars during the fight. They must also determine what surface-toair missile systems are in the target area, what’s important at this time of the fight, and recognise from a strategic and tactical level what their priorities are going to be at any given moment against any given threat.”

The biggest part of the mission for an EWO is managing the jammers, making sure everything is set up, tweaking small frequencies and focusing on either electronic surveillance or electronic attack. Consequently, one of VAQ-129’s main objectives is to expose the EWOs to as many types of mission as possible, such as a coalition strike over the beach and one launched from a carrier when part of a carrier air wing. Lt Nortz explained: “To prepare them as best as possible we want to ensure they fly maritime and land-based missions to give them an idea of what they will be expected to perform in the fleet. Once they arrive at their fleet squadron they start the next bubble of their training diving deeper into the tactics and really mastering the trade, VAQ-129 gives them the building blocks.”

1 A VAQ-129 maintainer signals to the plane captain that the arrestor hook is functioning correctly during pre-flight checks. 2 The pilot waits while the air refueling probe is extended during pre-flight checks. 3 This shot of Viking 521 shows the configuration of antennas and blisters fitted to the aircraft, and the close proximity of the centerline fuel tank to the nose wheel landing gear, 4 One row of EA-18Gs on VAQ-129’s extensive flight line. 5 The EA-18G Growler is equipped with the ALQ-218 wideband receiver system used for emitter identification location. The system’s receivers are housed in the distinctive wingtip pods.


Continued Training

Most students graduate VAQ-129 as a Cat I. This is the official US Navy category given to those who successfully complete a syllabus for their first-tour in model, normally a newly designated Naval Aviator (NA), NFO or Replacement Aircrew (RAC). Successful completion of a training syllabus results in NATOPS qualification, but training and qualification continues throughout the individual’s flying career.

Once individuals arrive on their fleet squadron, they commence Cat II transition training, which starts with attendance at a series of briefings, helping to plan the flight, learning and answering a set of questions for each mission. An individual typically qualifies as Cat II within six months.

Cat III is a refresher syllabus assigned to a NA, NFO or RAC with prior experience in the model but has been out of the aircraft for 18 months or longer. Successful completion results in NATOPS qualification. For individuals progressing from Cat II, the Cat III syllabus involves flight planning, and briefing the event. Upon successful completion, the individual is considered a section leader. Cat IV is an abbreviated refresher syllabus for a NA or NFO with prior experience in the model who has been out of the aircraft for 12 to 18 months. Successful completion results in NATOPS qualification. For individuals progressing from Cat III, the Cat IV syllabus involves working as the Growler liaison officer with the rest of the air wing. Upon successful completion, the individual is considered a division leader.

Cat V is a special syllabus, which varies according to circumstance. The FRS commanding officer is empowered to determine the unique requirements for each individual. This category is used for all foreign military training, NA, NFO and RAC courses.

All Royal Australian Air Force students completing the VAQ-129 syllabus graduate as a Cat V. For individuals progressing from Cat IV, the Cat V syllabus qualifies them as a weapon school instructors able to teach Cat IVs and take them to Cat V. This is not a common upgrade, because most individuals leave their first tour as a Cat III or Cat IV.

Crew Resource Management

Discussing crew resource management for a two-person crew, Lt Nortz said the Growler pilot is a much stronger player in the mission compared to the Prowler: “The pilot and the EWO work back and forth with each other, remaining on the same track coordinating the mission.”

Training students in crew resource management starts with tuition and instruction on display management: getting comfortable with the cockpit displays and making sure they are set up properly, so they receive the right information at the right time and learn how to use that information. Lt Nortz explained: “We try to throw as many things at them as possible, so that they learn what’s important and what’s not. In the event of a pop-up warning or a caution pop-up, is it affecting anything you are doing immediately? Is it the vul phase? Do you have to start focusing on that now? If you do not, put it aside and focus on making sure your jamming is set up or making sure at this point your HARM missile is ready to go. From an EWO management perspective, we have to make them recognise what is important and what is not. Getting a student EWO familiar with the displays and the weapon systems helps to make the training environment less stressful, so learning is made easier.” Vul phase refers to the vulnerability period or the time the aircraft are away from base and vulnerable to harm.

Display Configuration

Now the EA-18G Growler has moved beyond fleet transition stage and the HAVOC issues recommendations on display set-up configurations for different types of electronic attack, VAQ-129 and the fleet squadrons now use a more regulated doctrine than in the early years, one that dictates a standard display set-up as opposed to personal preference for all students and junior aircrew. Experienced EWOs use their own preferred set-ups. Some prefer to lock the map north up; some like to have the map spin with them. Some like to declutter the display, so, for example, at a certain time of the flight only early warning emitters pop up. Choice is driven by the type and the phase of the mission. Lt Nortz said: “You can configure the displays on deck, which is superefficient, or if you are super clever you can use JMPS to pre-programme, such that when you switch between different mission phases, the jet automatically displays your pre-loaded preferences. Alternatively, you can configure the displays while airborne.”

The JMPS provides the information, automated tools and decision aids needed to plan aircraft, weapon and sensor missions rapidly and accurately. The system loads mission data into aircraft, weapons and avionics systems.

Combat payloads carried by the EA-18G Growler vary, and require the combined 44,000lb (196kN) of thrust to get airborne. Viking 521 is seen launching with full afterburner in a clean training configuration giving the pilot an easy take-off performance.

Mission phases for an in-and-out strike flown from an aircraft carrier are pre-push (getting all aircraft in the same sector of sky): push (when all aircraft start to flow out, usually led by fighters to sweep the airspace); ingress (the point at which the strike package commits to the attack during which the Growlers are jamming enemy systems); and egress.

Missions flown by expeditionary Growler squadrons deployed to a land base have different phases and are much longer in duration. After launch, the jets go to a tanker and remain on call in an area of airspace ready to respond to a call from ground forces. A second air refuelling follows, to enable another on-call window before a final trip to the tanker and return to base. Protecting a strike aircraft launched from land bases and tasked with a predetermined strike involves similar phases to the one listed above.

Navy training procedures dictate that an aircraft is chained to the ramp even when operating at a shore base like Whidbey Island as seen in this shot of Viking 504 during a crew change. Adherence to the chaining protocol ensures maintainers and flight crew meet flight deck operating requirements.

Whatever the type of mission being flown, the EWO has to spend lots of time headsdown interfacing with the displays to oversee how the jammers are set up. That’s tough to endure over long periods of time. Describing how a situation can change, Lt Nortz said that while things are running well the EWO can be working the displays in support of the mission, when suddenly, without telling you, the pilot banks the aircraft because of an air threat: “When that happens you have to take a breather and look outside. It’s a standard part of the brief, known as operational risk management for AEA missions. Display fixation occurs when an EWO gets stuck staring down watching the displays. Mitigation for that is to always look outside to help how you are feeling and to break from the display.”

Mission Planning

Mission planning should meet the requirements contained in the brief given to the students by their instructors. It’s important that each student studies and fully understands the flight objectives. Students plan the entire mission using JMPS and must ensure all the way points and the right emitter loads have been entered into the system.

Mission briefing covers everything students could possibly need to know and gives them an opportunity to ask questions before they fly. Upon their return, they go to a mission debrief and look through the cockpit tape recordings, which show which displays were used and when. In the words of one VAQ-129 officer: “Everything throughout the course and your flight career is learnt during debriefing.”

Given the complexity of the electronic attack environment, AIR International was interested to know how mission planning is instructed to students as they start the AEA phase, and how much responsibility they have in putting a mission together, faced with the set of threats presented to them. Lt Hohler responded that, in his opinion, mission planning is the most important part of the AEA phase: “We give them basic scenarios, so the student gets a solid understanding of looking at the problem, knows what the resources are, where to reference information and to put a plan together. Students will never devise the best plan. There will always be problems with a plan, but the process of looking at the problem, knowing what the threats and assets are and putting together a cohesive plan is the biggest understanding they can learn during the whole AEA phase. Once they get to their fleet squadron, they will experience more robust presentations and will have experienced people who can show them specifics.”

Viking Duty

Capt Estes explained how VAQ-129’s duty extends beyond its billets at Whidbey to meet the requirements of the Carrier Air Wing commanders and operational squadrons forward-deployed around the world. As the repository of experienced personnel and resources, if a forward-deployed jet goes down or if aircrew or maintainers are needed at another location VAQ-129 supplies a replacement jet or maintainers or instructors to fill the hole: “There are thousands of requirements and it’s a function of good leadership and discussions as to which ones we fill, because at some point every instructor, every maintainer that we send a much-needed fill to a hole somewhere, takes a hit on our production.

“One great example involves syllabus requirements that we can’t do at Whidbey Island. We can’t go to CQ [carrier qualification] anywhere other than Oceana or North Island because that’s where the aircraft carriers are. Likewise, we do most of our air-to-air training at Key West or Fallon, because they are the locations with resident adversary squadrons, and for our bread-andbutter airborne electronic attack mission we have to deploy to places like Fallon, Ellsworth or Mountain Home. Each base has a range equipped with electronic emitters. These are essential, so our students can train against them to learn how to use the Growler’s systems in the art of electronic attack. As a result, any time we conduct a Det, obviously some of my maintainers and jets go. That creates a balancing act of how many shifts of maintenance we work downstairs if we have 100 people on an aircraft carrier and another 100 people in Fallon, Nevada.

“Such a situation begs the question: what can we actually produce at Whidbey without overtasking and running people absolutely ragged? That’s an example of being tri-sited and we do a lot of it. In such a situation, we typically go to a single maintenance shift. Instead of having two shifts and working 24 hours, we have everyone in on the same shift and get as much done as we can in a 12-hour window. This ends up limiting – especially during the summer months when it doesn’t get dark until 9pm – our opportunity to produce sorties. It’s a known quantiflable risk that we take.

“Typically, when I brief the CVWP commander on VAQ-129, I use the notion ‘how 129 goes, so goes the rest of the fleet’. VAQ-129 remains healthy if our maintenance programmes are good; if the maintainers are doing by the book maintenance and our RBA [ready basic airframe or ready for production aircraft] rate is good, that tends to bode well for the rest of the fleet.

“While CVWP maintains the people who inspect us and ensure we do by-the-book maintenance, VAQ-129 needs to be the organisation that puts those rules and procedures into place in practice. That’s the challenge I have given the maintenance department. Fortunately, we are augmented by 200 or so talented civilians and could not do our mission on a daily basis without them. Then there’s our admin department, the folks who process all our travel claims from the 17 or 18 Dets undertaken every year. Whatever the size of the Det, we only have a small number of admin professionals who process every travel claim. The operational tempo is high, even though folks are not gone on Dets for extended periods of time. If you are a fully qualified instructor you are likely to go on most of the Dets and find yourself gone for three out of four months in a consecutive period. My job is to spread the butter across the toast. It’s very easy to become reliant on the really hardworking Chief or First Class who wants to go on every Det, so we must make sure we are not burning out people who go on lots of Dets.

Student Supply

An FRS is the final stage of a pilot or EWO’s training before joining an operational fleet squadron. All training pipelines suffer attrition, so there will always be a requirement for more student pilots and NFOs joining VAQ- 129 to meet the requirements of the fleet, and despite being a national asset, VAQ-129 is not given any priority for the supply of student pilots and NFOs to fill billets in fleet squadrons. At the end of 2016, the Pacific Fleet F/A-18 Super Hornet FRS, Strike Fighter Squadron 122 (VFA-122) ‘Eagles’ had faced maintenance challenges and the ability to generate sufficient training sorties and therefore train pilots. Consequently, commanders of the three FRS units, VFA- 106, VFA-122 and VAQ-129, adjusted their respective pilot intakes for the next subsequent class in order to increase the number of pilots going to VFA-122 with the understanding that when VAQ-129’s requirement increased the Super Hornet units, especially VFA-122 would take less.

A view of an EA-18G Growler captured through night vision goggles.

Capt Estes concluded: “Having a symbiotic working relationship, allowed us to discuss the challenges. Like any business it’s all about relationships and that helps balance the class sizes.”

In the concluding part of this story AIR International will cover carrier qualifications, maintenance, an Australian and British perspective on the course, more insight from the skipper and a look at some of the colourful EA-18G CAG-birds operated by the squadrons assigned to CVWP.

A student pilot taxies Viking 554 from the VAQ-129 with wings folded in accordance with standard training procedures.