Not only is Electronic Attack Squadron 209 (VAQ-209) 'Star Warriors' a US Navy Reserve Squadron, but it's also the only one equipped with the EA-18G Growler and is an expeditionary squadron. Its primary objective is to provide strategic depth to the active-duty fleet cost effectively. Typically, VAQ-209 deploys on a two-year cycle.
Based at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Washington, VAQ-209 has five Growler aircraft assigned, 110 full-time active-duty sailors, and 80 selected reservist sailors who have jobs in the civilian world. The reservists work at the squadron during drill weekends and when the squadron is mobilised. About 90% of the squadron's reservists are located throughout the USA, so a typical drill weekend requires them to travel to Whidbey, which is less than convenient. To ease the burden of travelling to Whidbey for drill weekends, each quarter, the squadron deploys to a location such as Key West, Las Vegas, and New Orleans, for two to three weeks, to complete training exercises. Such detachments provide squadron personnel an opportunity to drill and complete orders.
Prior to joining the EA-18G community, Commander Cameron Dekker served with the US Navy Reserve E-2C Hawkeye squadron based at Naval Air Station New Orleans Joint Reserve Base. Dekker was assigned to the then Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron 77 (VAW-77) 'Nightwolves' which flew counter narcotics and illicit trafficking missions in the Caribbean and South America. The squadron was disestablished in March 2013 because of budget cuts, and the Department of Defense's pivotal shift to the Pacific theatre. In 2014, Cdr Dekker applied for a job with VAQ-209, got selected, and went through the full Growler course with VAQ-129. He joined VAQ-209 for a department head tour, then completed a staff tour, and was selected for command. Cdr Dekker served with VAQ-209 full-time from 2014, and currently has over 1,000 hours in the EA-18G Growler.
Discussing the squadron's sailors, Cdr Dekker said: "Except for one, our selective reservist pilots fly for Delta, American, United, FedEx, or UPS. Our electronic warfare officers work for consulting firms, government agencies, and agencies on base that support the electronic attack community."
Mission set, training and work-ups
The requirements for VAQ-209 to deploy are the same as an active-duty expeditionary squadron. Discussing the squadron's deployment work-up, Cdr Dekker said: "In a year that we mobilise [deploy], the active-duty sailors carry a lot of the load. We have about 110 full-time sailors who carry out the same workload as an active-duty expeditionary squadron with 170 people. For deployment, our selective reservists must organise getting time off with their employers for the purpose of completing the same workup as an active-duty squadron; same wickets, flight hours, and motions for getting certified to deploy.
"Pilots must maintain a minimum currency of five hours in 90 days. Each aircrew must fly the exact same number of hours as an active-duty counterpart: 100 hours for pilots and 48 hours for an EWO. Everybody in the squadron gets 100-plus hours per year.
"Managing that with all the other requirements on the squadron requires a lot of planning and a lot of communication to enable the sailors to plan their lives and discuss with their employers the demands that are going to be asked of them for a 12-to-18-month mobilisation period. Communication must be constant. Generally, if we are going to deploy, we get the word out, and then organise the work-up schedule with the wing.
“The work-up includes tactical refresher training in accordance with the EWARP syllabus, shooting HARM or air-to-air missiles as a benchmark test of the squadron's ability to fire and employ weapons, air-to-air training, and a couple of large force exercises.
“Each pilot must spend 100 hours practicing different skill sets to gain points which are accumulated to get their deployment certification. For example, flying with ALQ-99 pods for a certain number of flights, turning the pods on for a certain number of flights, and flying with NVGs for a certain number of night-time hours. Monitoring the criteria and tallying the points from each mission falls to the operations officer, which help demonstrate the squadron is ready.
“Prior to deploying to Misawa, Japan, VAQ-209 participated in two integrated training exercises: Northern Lightning 2021 at Volk Field, Wisconsin in August 2021 which featured F-16s, F-22s and F-35s, tanker support and AWACS, and Red Flag-Alaska in May 2022.
“We used the January 2022 edition of Exercise Sentry Aloha in Hawaii to prevent the skills required for coordinating tankers, air lift, and cargo movements, from atrophying. In June 2022 we deployed to Misawa, Japan for a three-month mobilisation, a Navy Reserve term for deployment.
“We had to plan-out everything in such a way that the pilots and EWOs maintained their currencies because every task has periodicity, which expire after a certain number of days.
“The more difficult part is planning for our selected reservists and the civilian pilots. While in the periodicity window we got refresher training and realigned the dates beyond the end of the deployment period. It's a constant race to show we're ready in green all the way through without letting any of the apples fall off the truck.
“Another difficult aspect comes about when a reserve squadron is mobilised. It creates significant administrative and legal paperwork and requires plenty of lead time for medical screening.”
When VAQ-209 deployed to Misawa in June 2022, it did not fly its assigned aircraft to Japan. Untypically and for the first time, the squadron took custody of aircraft from the squadron already there. The move involved a huge airlift of lots of people. This was not the scenario on the squadron's return to Whidbey, as Cdr Dekker explained: "We flew the aircraft back. This involved lots of planning and lots of maintenance. It took about a week to get back to Whidbey because of downtime required after flying long legs. For example, Guam to Hawaii is a nine-hour flight with tanking. It required piddle packs and packed meals, so it's no fun."
During the Misawa deployment, VAQ-209 demonstrated the flexibility of an expeditionary squadron by sending detachments to Iwakuni, Osan, and Guam, largely as a deterrent to whatever was going on in the region at the time. Each detachment was tasked by Commander Task Force 70, who is the admiral for Carrier Strike Group 5 based on the USS George Washington (CVN 73), who also had charge of VAQ-209.
Cdr Dekker continued: "In Japan we were flying missions in support of the Unit Deployment Program and integration missions with the US Air Force F-16 squadrons based at Misawa and the JASDF F-35 squadrons also based there. Similarly, when we operated from Osan in the Republic of Korea, we flew integration missions with the resident A-10 and F-16 squadrons.
“In June 2023, VAQ-209 was conducting flight operations at Whidbey Island in support of unit level training missions. These were flown to keep the squadron's selected reservist aircrews current with the Growler's mission sets, suppression of enemy air defences, electronic attack, communication jamming, and basic fighter manoeuvring.
“For day-to-day flight operations eight officers serving as department heads run everything on the squadron, including many collateral duties. When the selected reservist pilots hold duty on the squadron, their primary job is to fly and work as a department head which keeps them involved in that department's activity, which helps them to assume the role from a full-time colleague when mobilised.”
Road to deployment
In August, VAQ-209 deployed to Savannah International Airport, home of the Georgia Air National Guard-run Combat Readiness Training Center to participate in Exercise Century Savannah. The Star Warriors flew integration missions with F-16s and F-35s, supported by tankers and US Navy Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers underway in the western Atlantic.
Century Savannah counted as a large force integrated exercise.
After a short turnaround at Whidbey, VAQ-209 deployed to Naval Air Station Point Mugu, California to shoot AGM-88 HARM missiles. This is an annual requirement for an Electronic Attack Squadron.
Discussing VAQ-209's deployment to Misawa, Japan in June 2022, Cdr Dekker explained how an electronic attack squadron was deployed to Spangdahlem Air Base at the time. He said: "That affected when the squadron already deployed to Misawa was to be replaced. VAQ-209 was asked if it could go early. It was a big ask for a reserve squadron. Fortunately, we were given enough lead time to deploy to Misawa early to enable the squadron in Japan at the time to return home a little bit earlier than expected.
“In April 2023, we deployed to Nellis to participate in Exercise Neptune Eagle. This is an exercise organised by the US Air Force Weapon School which supplements the Weapons School Integration phase at the end of the six-month course. Neptune Eagle focuses on fifth generation integration and electronic attack and includes other US Air Force assets.”
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