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What comes after the Prowler?

Whidbey Island civic and business leaders and Navy personnel who successfully rallied a decade ago to keep Whidbey Island Naval Air Station off a base closure list remains active and has geared up to ensure the longevity of the base long after the era of the Prowler ends.

One way to do that is to make sure the new replacement aircraft for the aging EA-6B Prowler is stationed here.

While the Whidbey Task Force remained active even after the naval air station survived three rounds of base closures in the 1990s, the group, led by Chairman Al Koetje, has continued to lobby the base’s viability on Capitol Hill and at the Pentagon.

Each year since 1991, Island County Commissioner Mac McDowell, a member of the task force, has traveled to Washington, D.C., and met with U.S. senators and representatives and Department of Defense officials to garner their support for Whidbey Island Naval Air Station. McDowell will return to Washington, D.C., next month for a round of appointments with both elected and military officials.

McDowell, a retired Navy captain who flew the Prowler during his 20-plus years of active and reserve duty, said the decision of where to station the replacement for the Prowler is several years away.

“They have yet to make the decision on what the next aircraft is,” McDowell said, “and they won’t decide where (to base it) for several years after that.”

But, the time to work on convincing decision-makers that the new plane should be based at Whidbey Island is now, McDowell said. In fact, the task force has been working on that very issue for the past three years.

Once again, the task force and the community have some strong arguments for keeping the next generation of radar-jamming aircraft here.

“This is the premier spot to do the training ... the jamming,” McDowell said, citing the remote location that allows for radar-jamming training from take-off to landing.

Aside from the mission capability, McDowell pointed to good quality of life for military members on Whidbey Island. Navy members are so happy with life on Whidbey that the naval air station has the highest retention rate in the Navy, McDowell said.

“We have so many pluses here,” for keeping the base as home to electronic attack squadrons, McDowell said.

Last spring Oak Harbor Mayor Patty Cohen also traveled to Washington, D.C., where she met with both elected and Pentagon officials, to refresh their memories as to why Whidbey Island Naval Air Station is a useful, successful base.

“There are new faces this year in the Congressional delegation, and we need to educate them,” on the importance of the base to Oak Harbor, Cohen said at that time. Although Oak Harbor has a history of supporting the air station, Cohen will not rely on the word to trickle down to the Pentagon. She said she reinforces that message every year, by staying “on top of the information they are getting.”

Additionally, consultant Jim Seely, a retired U.S. Navy admiral with contacts at the Pentagon, has worked with the task force for a decade. Seely lobbies support for Whidbey Island Naval Air Station from elected and Department of Defense officials, and sets up the personal appointments for Cohen and McDowell.

“We’ll do the same thing this time,” Seely said, “as well as make a case for electronic warfare in the Northwest.”

Although Seely has been retired from the Navy since 1989 and no longer has a part in decision-making, he said he is able to keep track of how the decision-makers are progressing.

“I do get over to visit the guys in the Pentagon ... and get as much of a feeling for perception as I can,” Seely said.

Based on information he has gathered, Seely thinks the immediate follow-on aircraft for the EA-6B Prowler will be the EF-18, a modification of the FA-18F fighter/attack jet.

Whidbey Island Naval Air Station can definitely support such jets, Seely said, and there are “lots of people” in decision-making roles within the Pentagon who believe the electronic attack training mission should remain here.

Seely estimates that a final decision won’t be reached for one to two years or longer.

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