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The Next Generation comes to NAS Whidbey

Whidbey Island Naval Air Station is moving from the Prowler to the “Growler” as it transitions to the next generation of radar jamming planes.

The Navy announced Tuesday afternoon that it has chosen NAS Whidbey as the home for the EA-18G, unoficially dubbed the Growler.

The new aircraft will replace the EA-6B, the Prowler, a 30-year-old workhorse.

The Prowlers gave lots of good service, said Kim Martin, public affairs officer for NAS Whidbey.

“But it’s exciting to be moving into tomorrow’s Navy,” Martin said.

The replacement for the four-seat Prowlers is a variant of the two-seat F/A-18F Super Hornet. The mission will remain the same: Blocking enemy radar and dropping HARM missiles, she said.

The noise of aircrews taking Prowlers through their paces has raised the ire of neighbors. Will the Prowler be quieter than the Growler? This question is likely to be uppermost with some folks.

The Navy has conducted an environmental assessment, which showed no significant effects.

“Overall it is considered to be less noisy,” Martin said.

The public will have opportunity to comment on the environmental assessment before the placement decision is finalized. Details will be available in Saturday editions of the Whidbey News-Times on where copies of the document can be obtained.

Local Navy brass met with local and regional government officials Monday in a private meeting to discuss the aircraft replacement.

Island County Commissioner Mac McDowell, a former A-6 pilot, was excited about the Navy’s announcement.

“It demonstrates the Navy’s complete confidence in NAS Whidbey as the right spot for the future of electronics jamming,” he said.

McDowell said Navy was undoubtedly pressured to locate the EA-18G at Lamoore base in California — where the Super Hornets are located — but the training opportunities on Whidbey were more attractive in the end. The airspace around the island is wide open, especially for radar jamming.

Oak Harbor Mayor Patty Cohen said the choice also illustrates the good relationship between the Navy and local government.

“It’s a thrill to know, on a national level, we’re being recognized for our steadfast support of the military,” she said.

U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen attended the Monday briefing. The Democrat from Snohomish County has been a staunch advocate for basing the Growler at Whidbey.

“The same factors that make NAS Whidbey the perfect home for the Prowlers make it the ideal home for the next generation of electronic attack airplanes, the EA-18G,” he said in a press release.

Larsen serves on the House Armed Services Committee. He said the House Defense Appropriations Bill contains $310 million for the first four Growlers.

No specific date has been set for the plane’s arrival in Oak Harbor.

The Navy plans to begin the transition of its 10 Whidbey-based squadrons in 2008 and have it completed in 2013.

Plans call for replacing 68 Prowlers with 57 Growlers.

The changes from a four-person to two-person aircrew, coupled with the reduction in aircraft and less maintenance required on the new aircraft will result in a reduction of 1,100 personnel over the five-year transition period, Martin said.

The EA-18G is designed to meet the electronic attack mission of all branches of the service. The U.S. Air Force and U.S. Marines have yet to make announcements about future plans.

The first of the new planes to arrive at NAS Whidbey will be assigned to the training squadron VAQ 129. Even seasoned Prowler pilots will go through training on the new aicraft.

Boeing and the Navy signed a contract in December 2003 for development of the replacement aircraft. The Growlers are sisters to the Navy’s Super Hornet and will feature an electronic attack system provided by Northrup Grumman Corp. The first Prowler arrived at NAS Whidbey in 1971 and served in the Vietnam War, Libya, Iraq and in various other peacekeeping missions.

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