By Geoff Fein

The Navy is undertaking a number of measures to make sure it can keep its fleet of Northrop Grumman [NOC] EA-6B Prowler’s flying until at least 2012 and as far out as 2018 for the Marine Corps, according to a Navy official.

The Marine Corps is also planning to add Northrop Grumman’s Litening Pod, an advanced airborne infrared targeting and navigation pod, to give the EA-6B an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capability.

In the past few years, the Navy has made a big investment in replacing the Prowler’s center wing sections to enable the service to have a fatigue life that provides officials some confidence they will be able to meet the Marine Corps’ service life for the Prowler, Capt. Steven Kochman, EA-6B program manager, told Defense Daily in a recent interview.

“We couldn’t support our current level of operation until 2018, but with the smaller number the Marine Corps is looking at, we have pretty good analysis that supports we will be able to do that,” he said. “[There’s] not a tremendous amount of margin beyond that. Whether you want to fly more airplanes or if you wanted to fly the same number of airplanes longer, we’d run into some trouble there. From a fatigue life standpoint, which is always a concern for any type model series, I think we are in relatively good shape there.”

The Navy intends to replace its fleet of EA-6B Prowlers with Boeing‘s [BA] EA-18G Growler. The Marine Corps has said it is not going to fly the Growler.

“We are not going to get into the Growler business. We are not going to operate Growlers in the Marine Corps, so we are going to have to look at how we are going to do electronic attack,” Lt. Gen. John Castellaw, former deputy commandant for aviation, told Defense Daily in 2006 (Defense Daily, July 6, 2006).

In 2004, the Navy looked at its inventory of Prowlers and made the decision to have a more productive ratio of aircraft to a total inventory of ready aircraft.

The effort looked at what could be done to both scheduled and unscheduled maintenance to keep the limited number of aircraft from spending more time on the ground than in the air, Kochman said.

The Navy determined that some scheduled maintenance could be done less frequently without incurring additional risk. Additionally, upgrades were made to systems so that some parts didn’t break as often and didn’t need to be inspected as often, he added.

Back in ’04, the Prowler was running roughly in the low 60 percent of operational availability, Kochman said. “Really in the upper 50s.”

That percentage has started to increase, and right now the service is looking at an operational availability of 65 percent, he added. “We set a goal of getting up to 71 percent and we are right on path to the goal we have set.”

An investment of $77 million helped turn around the operational availability, Kochman noted.

“We had money in the program that we were going to buy some equipment, and do some inspections,” he said.

Instead, the Navy decided a better approach might be to make that investment in a smaller number of aircraft by retiring 12 Prowlers, Kochman said. The Navy had 120 Prowlers at the time.

The Navy did the analysis that said if it retired 12 Prowlers, the additional funds would help it reach the goal of 71 percent operational availability with the remaining 108 aircraft, Kochman explained.

“It was actually a 20 percent increase…what we established as a target. Right now, all indications [show] here we are three years into this thing and it’s moving in that direction,” Kochman said.

The effort, known as Productive Ratio, funded a number of improvements and upgrades. For example, it paid for a new digital flight control system, Kochman pointed out.

“It was very difficult to maintain, and you get to the point that the box is so old the only people that can work on it are government folks because industry is not particularly engaged in that,” he said of the older flight control system.

“But the F-14 went to a digital flight control system. BAE SYSTEMS had put together a digital box for them, and they converted that box into something we could use,” Kochman added.

As the Navy retired Prowlers, they didn’t buy some center wing sections and didn’t do inspections. That resulted in generating the $77 million in funds to pay for all the structural improvements, he added.

By far the most important upgrade the Navy made to the Prowler is Improved Capability (ICAP) III and the low band transmitter, Kochman said. ICAP III includes upgrading air crew displays, as well as the receiver and Link 16.

The new displays increased reliability and tremendously improved performance, Kochman said.

“Now instead of having three monochrome displays, you have four color displays in front of all the air crews. It has really integrated the use of some of the other equipment we used to have and integrated all four crew much much better,” he added.

Air crews need to have good receivers so that they can do jamming, and they have to have good information so that they can improve jamming and link aircraft together, Kochman said.

“This Link 16 has been extremely useful as far as helping people understand what is going on in the battlefield, and it will continue to develop to make us a better jamming platform,” he said. “And we need to do that, and we are going to continue to do that through the next couple of software upgrades. We are going to improve some of what we call the EW (electronic warfare) battle management in our next couple of software blocks in ICAP III. We are also going to improve management of our jamming system.”

ICAP III with Northrop Grumman’s ALQ 218 tactical jamming pod, enables what Kochman calls reactive assignment.

“Really what it is, is more precision in our jamming responses. It is more responsive than preemptive-type of jamming, which is what you want to be, but you have to have a good receiver to do that,” he said. “So as we do software upgrades, we will continue to improve our reactive assignment, and we will continue to improve EW battle management, and we will continue to improve operation of the ALQ-218 in the EA-6B.”

Another upgrade to the Prowler will be the addition of Litening Pod for the Marine Corps’ aircraft, Kochman noted.

The Navy held a tactical demonstration for Litening Pod integration in August, he added.

“The Marine Corps asked for an ISR capability on the Prowler, and so we went and did that. In addition to having an ISR capability you are going to have a communications device which plays into their long term thoughts,” Kochman said. “I think it is very important to have that and to start getting some exposure to that.”

The Marine Corps’ Prowlers are going to deploy with Litening Pods in 2008, he added. “It will be interesting to see how the air crews learn how to use that piece of equipment and see what can be done to help communications between ground forces.”

Because Litening Pods are not qualified for use on carrier based aircraft, the Navy’s Prowlers won’t be getting the pod, Kochman said.