Proposed bill approves only five more Growlers

A draft National Defense bill, made public last night, approves funding five more EA-18G Growlers for the Navy, according to a summary of the legislation released by the House Armed Services

The U.S. House of Representatives approved a national defense bill Thursday that grants funding for five EA-18G Growlers for the Navy, according to Congressman Rick Larsen.

The $450 million earmark falls short of the Navy’s request earlier this year for 22 additional Growlers in the 2015 federal budget. However, the additional aircraft should allow the Navy to increase the size of its squadrons from five to seven, according to the United States Naval Institute.

The bill must still be approved by the U.S. Senate. After that, it would go to the president for signature.

Oak Harbor Mayor Scott Dudley said the Growlers contribute to the vital role the base plays in the island’s economy and in the Navy’s strategic plan.

“We’re in support; we welcome them with open arms,” Dudley said. “We think NAS Whidbey makes a whole lot of sense from a strategic position and also from an economic position. We welcome all Growlers.”

The electronic attack aircraft are based at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station in Oak Harbor, although the aircraft is a close derivation of the Navy’s F/A-18F Super Hornet, according to The Boeing Co.

A squadron of five Growlers has been stationed at Atsugi Naval Air Facility in Japan since 2012 and another was recently deployed to Iran.

The $577 billion defense bill was hashed out by both the House and Senate Armed Services committees.

Passing this legislation before the end of the year is “vital,” according to the House Armed Services Committee Democrats summary, and “represents broad, bipartisan consensus about America’s national security goals, resources and policies.”

The Navy is in the process of conducting an Environmental Impact Study on the Growlers, the target of criticism by some Whidbey Island residents over its noise levels. The group Citizens of Ebeys Reserve, or COER, has been particularly active in its opposition to Growler landing practices at Outlying Field Coupeville.

The EIS is examining four alternatives for squadron composition based on an increase of anywhere from 13 to 36 additional Growlers. It was unclear Friday how the legislation, if passed, would impact the EIS.

Ted Brown, a public affairs officer for U.S. Fleet Forces Command, said he couldn’t speculate on any EIS change until the legislation becomes law.

“There’s still plenty of time to develop alternatives,” Brown said.

There are 82 Growlers actively flying at NAS Whidbey, and 12 are used as backup if an active plane is damaged, according to Larsen’s office.

The Navy could station as many as 118 Growlers at Whidbey in the future, according to Larsen.

“I want to be clear this (defense bill) does not mean NAS Whidbey will automatically house five more Growlers,” Larsen said. “The number of Growlers at NAS Whidbey will be determined by the ongoing Environmental Impact Study, which has provided multiple opportunities for public input.”

The federal legislation also funds the acquisition of eight P-8A Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft.

The Navy decided earlier this year to base six P-8A squadrons at NAS Whidbey. Construction improvements on the Whidbey base are also funded.