Jamming or Deception

Mark Ayton concludes a two-part feature on the training mission of Electronic Attack Squadron 129, the schoolhouse and repository of electronic attack in the US Navy

A catapult officer signals a VAQ-129 EA-18G Growler for launch from the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68).
Mass Communication Specialist Siobhana McEwen/US Navy

Standing on the platform at the back end of USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70), a pilot, holding a toughened phone to his right ear for radio communication, watches as an EA-18G Growler approaches the flight deck. Assigned to VAQ-129, the EA-18G Fleet Replacement Squadron (FRS), the pilot’s white vest identifies him as a Landing Signals Officer (LSO). As any aircraft approaches the flight deck, the LSO’s job out on the platform, is to focus complete attention on the pilot flying the approach to ensure a safe landing.

Ever since the first flight deck operation on board USS Langley in 1922, LSOs have been an essential part of the aircraft landing process. Until aircraft carriers were equipped with optical landing systems, an LSO held coloured flags or paddles as a means to communicate directly with the pilot on approach to the flight deck. Today’s LSOs continue to be dubbed paddles; their role in VAQ-129 or any other FRS is to prepare student pilots to do their first trap, a term used for a carrier landing in a Navy carrierborne aircraft.

All student pilots on VAQ-129 first carrier qualify (CQ) in the T-45 Goshawk while assigned to a training squadron, but their course colleagues training to become electronic warfare officers (EWOs) have no previous experience of the carrier environment.

Lt Drew Schnabel, an LSO with VAQ-129, said: “It’s different enough for the pilots doing it in their first grey aircraft, but it’s a completely new experience for the EWOs. A lot more time is spent getting them ready because they have no boat experience.”

Explaining the preparations involved in preparing VAQ-129 students for their first carry trap, LSO Lt Josh Brown said the process takes about six weeks: “In their training squadron the student pilot is led out to and back from the carrier by an instructor. The student’s only job out there is to land. In VAQ-129, we teach them how to get to and from the ship, so they can take off, fly out, get over the ship and come back on their own. We provide lots of lectures on how to do that and how to fly an approach to the ship: the building blocks of how to do everything required. Then we start simulator training and FCLPs [field carrier landing practice]. Students do seven sims involving 35 approaches at night and about 140 passes before they go to the ship, so lots of practice landing in the sim and the jet during the day and at night. Throughout the course, students get multiple chock talks and lectures about how things are done out at the ship, how to be a grownup out at the carrier for the first time.”

Typically, VAQ-129 strives to crew each jet heading to the carrier for CQ with a student pilot and student EWO. Lt Brown said there are plenty of eyes on the aircraft as it approaches the flight deck, in the tower and on the LSO platform: “But ultimately they are on their own. Any time an aircraft is behind the ship and you’re on the platform, all of your attention is on that pilot to make sure they get on board safely. Our priorities don’t change from the fleet to what we do with a student pilot, the difference being a student pilot is a little more unpredictable. We know they are going to deviate more than a fleet pilot; we don’t know how, so we have to jump on the radio and give the pilot correction instructions.”

According to Lt Schnabel, LSOs acquire the skill set required for the job by watching thousands of passes on the ship and even more at the field: “As a new LSO, you have to see a lot of passes to recognise the deviation of the aircraft. It’s all about repetition, that’s all it is.”

Both the Growler and Super Hornet can fly what are known as mode 1 approaches during which the aircraft is coupled to the automatic approach system until touchdown. The jet lands itself with the pilot monitoring to make sure it maintains the glideslope all the way down. Another semiautomatic landing mode is auto throttles, in which the pilot makes control stick inputs, but the throttles manage themselves with monitoring by the pilot.

Throughout their time with their training squadron and FRS, students are not allowed to use any type of automated approach mode. Everything a student pilot does in 129 is old-school manual, which allows the LSOs to judge if the student has successfully learned and accomplished the task of safely landing the aircraft on the flight deck.

To achieve carrier qualification, a pilot must achieve ten traps and two touch and goes in daytime, and six traps and two touch and goes at night. This quota usually takes two days to complete, because a student is restricted to ten daytime and four night-time traps in a 24-hour period.

Lt Brown said the process ideally takes two days: “We like to get six daytime and the first four night traps done of the first day, followed the next day by four more daytime and two more night traps and the student is carrier qualified. It doesn’t always work out that way, because we run out of deck time. CQ can be a long evolution, some students take ten hours in the seat [the time required to get checked out], and others achieve it with two hours.”

VAQ-129 LSOs and instructors expect a 100% completion rate for each trip to the boat, but that’s just an expectation. If a student does not CQ or is disqualified (DQ) on the first boat trip, he or she returns to 129 and trains up again for the next boat. All students get two attempts to CQ.

Not all students who receive a DQ do so at the carrier, as Lt Schnabel explained: “A field DQ is another option. As we monitor a student’s progress through the syllabus and before the boat, if we feel the student is not safe to fly behind the boat or requires more time, we can hold them back. That helps prevent people setting up for a failure.

“There are different ways of disqualification, boarding rate and grade point average [GPA] are the most common failure metrics. Each pass is graded and included in the student’s GPA. If a student forgets to bring the power up to mil power once they make the trap, that student gets a DQ on the grounds of safety; if the hook misses the wire, the aircraft is unlikely to be able to get airborne again, because the power setting is too low.

In the event of a DQ, the student must discuss the CQ evolution with the instructors before starting training for the next boat. Managing the feelings and emotions of a student who has received a DQ is all a question of psychology and represents the greatest skill each LSO must learn. Lt Schnabel said: “You have to find out how the student is feeling and that ability comes from repetition in the process.”

The LSO in charge and an assistant for each boat trip spend considerable time with the students as they work up to CQ, learning about their personalities and what they need to hear from the LSOs before they go out. Schnabel concluded: “You are part psychologist during that time.”

Once students have achieved CQ, they are posted to one of the 14 fleet squadrons based at Whidbey Island. Throughout their time in VAQ-129, student pilots are dubbed nuggets, a title they keep until they have completed 50 traps with their fleet squadron. Remember the automatic and semi-automatic landing modes discussed earlier? Well, at this point in their flying career with 50 traps under their belt, pilots are for the first time allowed to use automated landing modes.

Maintaining the Growler

VAQ-129’s maintenance department is separated into two divisions to help share the squadron’s workload amongst its 400 people. Each division has specific areas of expertise. The AVARM division is responsible for avionics and armaments. The aircraft division is responsible for life support, ejection seats, engines, airframe and corrosion control (which also includes painting and is run by a contractor). A work centre is assigned to each of the five responsibilities.

Daily maintenance operations on VAQ-129 start with a meeting involving the lead chief from the five work centres each of whom has an account of the maintenance required for the day, week and month. Chiefs from maintenance control issue the information for the day based on the flight schedule.

Inspections or fixing discrepancies are assigned to the work centres, which form their respective plan for the day. Each plan lists the work required both in the hangar and on the flight line to support the daily flight schedule. Work jobs are assigned by each work centre supervisor in accordance with the requirements and the respective qualifications of each sailor.

Aircraft division lead Chief Petty Officer Ray Hawver explained how a discrepancy, one that is preventing an aircraft from flying, takes priority in the work plan: “The system or systems that are broken dictate which work centre does the troubleshooting and fixes the problem, so the aircraft can be included on the flight schedule.”

The daily flight schedule has its own requirements, primarily attending to aircraft between missions, colloquially known as the turn. Work required to turn aircraft depends on whether the crew is doing a hot seat change. This involves a crew swap with one engine running and speeds up the time required to turn. When flight operations require rapid turnaround, in addition to engine running crew swaps, hot pit refuelling is also undertaken. This involves a minimum crew of three people using pantograph fuelling arms in a direct refuelling station known as a pit; hence the term hot pit refuelling.

Aircraft return from missions with discrepancies all the time. One perhaps more interesting example is when the jet is showing that the tolerances for oil consumption have been exceeded. Why interesting? Because the fix requires an engine mechanic, one qualified to conduct ground runs, to start up and run the GE F414-GE-400 engines until they are up to temperature, which allows the maintenance team to verify the oil level and perform a service if required; engine servicing has to be completed while the engines are warm.

Regular calendar-based maintenance occurs every 14 days and more in-depth inspections every 28 days. The 14-day inspection includes washing the aircraft to prevent corrosion and lubrication of all mechanical moving parts such as the landing gear and tail hook. The 28-day inspection comprises removal of the centerline external fuel tank if installed, and cleaning the bomb racks on each installed station before reinstalling the external fuel tank. Work also includes testing the dry bay fire suppression system and inspecting the Sea Water Activated Release System on the ejection seats. The 28-day inspection also includes the next 14-day, so there are two inspections every 28 days.

Other, day-long inspections include basic servicing of the aircraft and the ALQ-99 jamming pods.

During AIR International’s visit to Whidbey, VAQ-129 had a number of jets in its hangar each undergoing different stages of calendar and hourly based or phase inspections; most were undergoing phase maintenance. The Growler’s phase cycle is 800 flight hours and comprises four inspections labelled A, B, C and D that are performed in succession at the 200-hour point. No other level of maintenance is conducted on the squadron; deep maintenance is performed by the Fleet Readiness Center Southwest at Naval Air Station North Island, California every three years in two phases.

In addition to calendar and phase-based requirements, the maintenance department also has to handle updates to the aircraft, most notably software. Each new release of High Order Language (HOL) (Operational Flight Program) software not only needs loading on the aircraft but also requires additional work, typically on the flight controls, which need rigging and re-inputting. This is conducted by VAQ-129’s airframe work centre.

Training maintainers

Many of the maintainers arriving on VAQ-129 fresh from a US Navy technical school have never previously worked on an aircraft. Each work centre has a qualification system and different qualifications that each sailor must achieve in order to be assigned to a work centre: for example, in tyres and brakes, hydraulic fluid contamination analysis, ejection seats and engine running.

After three years of building up their qualifications, many of the trainees are rotated to the front-line squadrons, while others stay on 129. According to CPO Hawver, everybody who comes to 129 attends a school to gain a Navy classification code, a requirement to work on the aircraft and achieve higher qualifications: “With 129, they receive hands-on operational training and how to work on the flight line, something they do not receive at technical school.”

Despite a 400-strong maintenance department, as a training squadron many of VAQ-129’s junior enlisted ratings lack varying levels of experience, so the squadron works a team concept. Each junior rating is paired up with someone with a lot more experience to shadow and to learn by watching and doing under the instructions and supervision of this mentor. The burden of the training role does slow the maintenance department down very slightly, but is essential for the future ranks of the Navy.

Viking 511 makes an arrested landing aboard USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) during carrier qualifications off the coast of Southern California.
Midshipman Noah Rodman/US Navy
An aircraft handler directs a VAQ-129 EA-18G Growler to catapult 1 on the flight deck of USS George Washington (CVN 73).
Petty Officer Clemente Lynch/US Navy

Describing the maintenance department’s operations CPO Hawver said there are a lot of moving parts and a lot of people, “all of whom have different needs and peers, but need to be provided, so the junior ratings can perform at their maximum ability”.

Squadron detachments also complicate the maintenance department’s burden, because it has to support flight schedules at multiple locations, Whidbey and sometimes two other bases, and maintain training of the junior ratings who are generally not sent on detachments. Each work centre has a leading petty officer responsible for making sure qualifications and manpower are distributed to support the mission at multiple locations.

CPO Hawver said: “[It is challenging] because eventually the 50 people assigned to a work centre drops by ten with each detachment on the road, meaning we have to ensure we can still operate at Whidbey with the people remaining. Overcoming the challenge is all about splitting up qualifications efficiently.

“The goal is to get the junior ratings qualified, because sending somebody that is not qualified is less than ideal. We train them at Whidbey and try to use a forthcoming detachment as a reward, because they get to go somewhere unfamiliar and work in a faster pace environment, which tends to be fun, because detachments are manned by a small crew.”

CPO Hawver said carrier qualification detachments require all squadron people who have to work on the flight deck to achieve a familiarisation qualification: “Our junior ratings who need to complete flight deck qualifications must go to the carrier to complete ship-borne qualification. That usually takes about a day or day-and-a-half to complete. Once the junior people understand and know what they’re doing, they qualify quickly and can then do it for real.”

CPO Hawver explained some of the preparations given to the enlisted maintainers bound for the carrier: “If I’m in charge of the detachment, I brief them about working two ten-hour shifts for the duration of the boat cycle, so they are aware ahead of time. If they are new we send them up to the crow’s nest, so they can watch flight deck operations as they see the different aircraft movement paths, so they understand where it is safer to walk and move around the flight deck before they actually go on the flight deck and pair up with an experienced person.”


Air Combat Officer is not a job title in the US Navy, but for the last three years, officers with that very position have occupied spaces on VAQ-129 at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, and continue to. Their homeland is Australia.

Squadron Leader Richard Drum is one such Australian currently at VAQ-129 on the EA-18G Growler conversion course as a student EWO. He qualified as a navigator with the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) and served on the F-111 squadrons based at RAAF Base Amberley specialising in electronic warfare. Once the F-111 was withdrawn from RAAF service, he served on an overseas tour, before being posted to work in the RAAF Growler Transition Office.

An EA-18G Growler prepares for launch from USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71).
Mass Communication Specialist Anthony J. Rivera/US Navy
Royal Australian Air Force EA-18G A46-301 wearing No.6 Squadron markings at low-level in a canyon in southern California.
Dan Stijovich

Based in Air Force Headquarters, the office is manned by a team of specialists responsible for overseeing Australia’s defence needs for the EA-18G Growler from an operational perspective and how the type will integrate into the wider Australian Defence Force. Growler acquisition is handled by another team focused on delivering Australia’s first dedicated electronic attack capability on time. When Sqn Ldr Drum graduates from VAQ-129 he will return to Australia and join 6 Squadron based at Amberley.

As a foreign national, Drum is classed as a Cat 5 student, the US Navy’s classification given to students taking a flight training course as part of a foreign military sales programme. Some of the initial cadre of RAAF students arriving for the Growler conversion course were former F/A-18F Super Hornet aircrew who take an abbreviated course depending on their type currency. If current on the F/A-18F their operating experience is recognised, so they typically take just the electronic attack phase. In addition, because the RAAF is only conducting land-based Growler operations, its students are not required to complete carrier qualifications with VAQ-129.

Once students arrive back at Amberley they are rated as a D-category pilot or EWO; however they are not quite ready to be integrated in to the squadron, because they need to do basic Australian familiarisation training to ensure what they did with the US Navy can be aligned to RAAF-specific procedures. Incoming aircrew need to be aware of differences in areas such as emergency procedures, formation flying, terminology and plane captain hand signals. The Australian transition course lasts between four and five weeks and qualifies each student as a fully fledged squadron pilot or EWO aircrew before beginning further tactical training.

Once Sqn Ldr Drum returns to Amberley he will join the initial cadre of crews, which are still building up to the number required to declare initial operational capability and eventually full operational capability. Despite the gradual build-up to full operating capability, which is a few years away, people already serving on 6 Squadron will start to be posted out to maintain other instructor and requirements’ billets that require experienced people.

Explaining the Australian training pipeline, Sqn Ldr Drum said: “We fully align with the US Navy system and finish the conversion course as a Cat 5 FMS student and we are also aligned in all respects as to what is expected of us from a RAAF perspective. We are not required to conduct additional training in preparation for when we arrive home, but we do have access to the full set of Australian tactical documentation, [although] we don’t really need those while at VAQ-129. However, many of the Australian students make an effort to read the documents to gain a deeper knowledge about advanced tactics and the aircraft’s intricate electronic warfare systems, because once they arrive at 6 Squadron they know it becomes a requirement.”

Australia’s Growler programme

The Australian Government decided to buy an airborne electronic attack capability in 2013. The decision to buy 12 new EA-18G Growlers was for the most part caused by the delay in receiving the F-35A Lightning II. Prior to the realisation the F-35 was going to be late entering RAAF service, 12 of the Australian F/A-18F Super Hornets were earmarked for possible modification to Growler configuration; the aircraft were wired for modification on Boeing’s production line at St Louis, Missouri.

Because the RAAF was not prepared to halve its 24-strong Super Hornet strike force when faced with a capability gap caused by slips in the F-35A programme, the new build Growlers were ordered: a good result for Australia. The first Aussie Growlers rolled off the production line in 2015. Most of them went into storage at Boeing’s St Louis facility and were eventually delivered to the RAAF between January and March 2017. The aircraft were accepted into RAAF service by Australians at Whidbey Island. Each aircraft underwent at least one acceptance flight conducted from Whidbey. By late May, seven aircraft had been ferried to Amberley, with the remaining five at Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, California for operational test and evaluation conducted by 6 Squadron. These aircraft have since been ferried to Amberley.

The RAAF made smart moves before accepting its aircraft. Some of its aircrews had acquired up to three years’ operational experience serving with the US Navy’s expeditionary EA-18G squadrons, which provided the very best experience of daily flight operations; many of those aircrew are now assigned to 6 Squadron at Amberley. In addition to that, the RAAF had the luxury (a word not usually associated with military procurement programmes) of six months bedding down the capability with VAQ-129, using the squadron’s expertise to learn valuable lessons throughout the initial phase of the aircraft acceptance and basing transition process. Interestingly, in accordance with the memorandum of understanding between the US Navy and the RAAF, only RAAF aircrew flew the Aussie jets while they were based at Whidbey Island. Eventually US Navy aircrew will enter an exchange programme with 6 Squadron at Amberley.

Initial Australian aircrew training on VAQ-129 surged to 12-16 people comprising at any one time of 8-10 students and an additional 4-6 instructors, who taught both US Navy and Australian students. Currently there are five RAAF students on VAQ-129. In the future, the RAAF plans to send two crews to VAQ-129 for the conversion course every six months, a tempo that at this stage is set to remain in place for the entire life of the aircraft.

Amberley bed down

With all 12 of its EA-18G Growlers now delivered to Amberley, the RAAF has achieved a successful initial transition to the type, which included moving from the United States to Australia (a good forerunner for the F-35A that starts arriving in country in 2018). All 12 jets were accepted in the required timeline, to the required configuration standard and flew multiple sorties in the first few weeks without any significant issues. According to Sqn Ldr Drum, the RAAF Growler community was not expecting any surprises during the transition because of its successful transition to the Super Hornet, a common airframe to the Growler. Despite the success of the transition, Sqn Ldr Drum said the RAAF is not underestimating the amount of learning it has to undertake in the airborne electronic attack role: “We are infants in that space, but we’ve got a really good grounding and, so far, there’s been no surprises.”

Industry support to the RAAF and 6 Squadron is provided primarily by Boeing Defence Australia, General Electric International Incorporated, Raytheon Australia and Jacobs Australia.

A tale of the unexpected

AIR International was both surprised and delighted to discover that VAQ-129 has an RAF exchange officer within its ranks. What’s more surprising, considering the RAF has never had a dedicated airborne electronic attack platform and won’t get one until the F-35B enters service next year, the exchange programme has been running for over 30 years. Former RAF Tornado GR4 electronic warfare instructor, Flight Lieutenant Jane Pickersgill went through the VAQ-129 course as a Cat 1 student (the UK is not an FMS customer so the Cat 5 classification is not applied) and started instructing almost immediately after her graduation, building up to teach across the disciplines.

Explaining her chain of command, Flt Lt Pickersgill said she has two: “Captain [Trevor] Estes is my first reporting officer and an RAF Group Captain based at the UK Embassy in Washington DC is my second reporting officer. I represent the RAF to hopefully bring some best RAF practice into the US Navy and to US Navy best practices home.

“It’s an instructional exchange and is mostly about instructional techniques and sharing information. With the F-35 in the pipeline it’s very much electronic warfarecentric and VAQ-129 is the home of electronic warfare for the US Navy. The idea is that I acquire as much knowledge and interoperability experience with the US Navy as possible and take that, at the appropriate classification level, back to the UK and impart the knowledge I’ve learnt into, probably, the Air Warfare Centre.”

Of the near 400 RAF exchange billets currently in the United States, VAQ-129’s is the only remaining back-seat fast jet exchange, and one the RAF is very keen to continue because of the F-35 and its unique electronic warfare capability provided by the APG-81 AESA radar and the ASQ-239 Barracuda electronic warfare system. Post- Afghanistan, the RAF is slowly building up its electronic warfare capability again. Compared to 20 years ago, the RAF’s electronic warfare skill set is much depleted. Rebuilding its skill set is not just for F-35, but F-35 is absolutely the impetus behind it.

As a foreign national, Flt Lt Pickersgill has limitations placed upon her due to the classified aspects of the EA-18G and its electronic attack systems and mission data. As an exchange office, Flt Lt Pickersgill said she is free to see data because she has signed non-disclosure paperwork and is fully embedded into the programme, but is not allowed to access the secret internet protocol router network (SIPRNET) used throughout the US Department of Defense: “I don’t need to know that [information on SIPRNET] and the US Navy doesn’t need me to see that. Anything I need to know on VAQ-129 is downloaded on to the laptop issued to me. Before I return to the UK, I’ll be debriefed by wing security on what I can and can’t take back and what I can and can’t say back in the UK.”

Viking 507 launches from the USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) during carrier qualifications off the coast of Southern California.
Midshipman Noah Rodman/US Navy

Changes, burdens and the F-35

Discussing the evolving changes to the EA-18G Growler led primarily by each new release of HOL software, VAQ-129’s skipper Captain Estes said: “H12 is the next release coming to the fleet and it has some pretty revolutionary display configurations that for a while will cause us to have some H10 students and some H12 students based on which fleet squadrons they are going to. One helpful aspect of the Growler community is we have just 15 squadrons. If you think about the time to go from H10 to H12, we could effectively do that in a one-year span; that is a 129 course, so as a result I don’t think I’ll ever actually produce an H10 student once H12 hits the street.

“The real impact will be felt in the sim building. How long will it take for them to reconfigure the simulators? We estimate it will take about two hours to squirt the H12 into each jet, so about 80 man hours for the squadron’s assigned aircraft; so effectively, we are targeting to shut down for an extended weekend work through and get all the jets squirted.

“Whatever portion of the syllabus an H10 student was to at that point, they’ll immediately move to H12 and take the H12 transition. We will have to train the instructors first and allow them to become proficient with H12 and then start to instruct H12 on the course.”

The Growler has been in front line service with the US Navy since the third quarter of 2009. Since then all 14 electronic attack squadrons assigned to Electronic Attack Wing Pacific have transitioned to the type and countless deployments aboard US Navy super carriers and those to forward operating bases around the world. When asked how the aircraft is bearing up, Captain Estes said the jets are holding up quite well: “The biggest burden is having five jets per squadron, which just isn’t enough. When a carrier squadron with only five jets is running an air tasking order over Iraq or Syria, the utilisation rates of those aircraft sky rockets. Double cycling them through a Syrian or Iraqi sortie is just murder for flight-hour buildup. It stands to reason that if there were more jets per squadron the flight hours would be spread across more jets and the utilisation rates would not be as large.

“We didn’t apportion enough jets per squadron right off the bat. The Navy has already made strides to improve the situation and the number of aircraft now in the programme of record has increased so eventually we can get to maybe seven, someday maybe eight per carrier squadron.

“Nobody envisioned the utilisation rates we’re putting on the fleet. The demand for Growler across the world right now is pretty high, which was one of the driving factors that led to the export to Australia, a known ally that’s been with the United States tooth and nail for near every conflict we have got into. We recognise [that the] more likeminded people that want Growlers, the better off we are going to be.”

As we highlighted in AIR International, August 2017, VAQ-129 is a squadron with a high operational tempo, including an average of 17 to 18 detachments in a 12-month period. Capt Estes said the squadron does as much flying on detachment as it does at Whidbey: “Most airto- air detachments are two to three weeks long at Key West or Fallon, and the AEA [Airborne Electronic Attack] detachments are usually two weeks long. The nice aspect of a detachment is that many of the paperwork distractions go away and you can just focus on the flying.

“Even though we take just seven or eight jets, the sortie generation rate goes through the roof because everyone flies twice a day, every day including Saturdays which we don’t do at Whidbey. We have taken just six jets and conducted hot seat crew switching three times generating 18 sorties in roughly four hours. That’s pretty darn good.”

The driver behind that is twofold: the availability of support assets, whether professional aggressors at Key West or Fallon or the threat arrays on the ranges near Ellsworth and Mountain Home; and the ability to fly multiple sorties without a need for long-term maintenance on the jets on the detachment. Capt Estes said: “As we approach a detachment window, the maintenance department re-baselines all inspections on the jets, so each one is a full-up round as it goes on detachment. It’s then about doing reactionary maintenance turns on det [detachment]. There is no long-term maintenance done on det.”

AIR International asked Capt Estes if other assets are used on detachments, to which he answered yes and no: “In order to affect the training objectives for the syllabus, we do not need any external assets for AEA. For air-to-air we need adversaries. However, when opportunities are presented that will give junior pilots exposure to joint operations, we will fly with other aircraft. At Mountain Home we fly with the Singaporean F-15SGs and at Ellsworth we have worked with B-1Bs providing protection during close air support. Opportunities like these are a way to get student pilots thinking about coalition ops. At El Centro, we did a strike with the Marine Corps F-35Bs from Yuma.

“We have also conducted joint FRS dets. When VFA-122 [the Super Hornet FRS based at Lemoore in California] was conducting events in its strike phase, we provided electronic warfare close air support during the missions, helping 122 by doing our normal role. We don’t need such opportunities to complete the syllabus per se, but it makes training so much better when the opportunity is there.”

Missile shoots involving AIM-120 AMRAAM for self-defence or AGM-88 HARM and AGM- 88E AARGM in the AEA role are a requirement for an operational squadron’s readiness matrix, but not a requirement for 129. That said, Capt Estes said squadron instructors do practise missile shots in the simulator: “The switchology is all the same. The training modes in the jet allow you to see all of the time lines that you need, so you can get the same training. You just don’t feel and see the missile leaving the rail.”

VAQ-129’s electronic attack mission is currently unique to the entire Growler community, but part of the role will eventually be shared with the single-seat F-35C Lightning II. For Capt Estes, the F-35 is an aircraft he believes will go beyond all expectations, but he also believes each new weapon system at some point is only as good as the mission planning: “We are rapidly approaching that point in the Growler where garbage in is garbage out. The more the F-35 community understands electronic warfare and how important its role is in electronic warfare, not only as an AEA asset, but also as a sensor node with the ability to pass back to Growlers for processing and sharing the information, the better the two types will be as a team. That’s the key point: it’s a team. I don’t see any single platform being the silver bullet. Our future force is going to require a layering of assets even when everything is F-35 or F/A-XX [the term used for the US Navy’s future fighter set to replace the Super Hornet]. VAQ-129 already has inroads to the two US Navy F-35C squadrons, VFA-101 and VFA-125, to help make the aircraft reach its full potential.”

A member of the catapult crew prepares to launch an EA-18G Growler from VAQ-129 from the flight deck of USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74).
Mass Communication Specialist Ignacio Perez/US Navy
Landing signal officers aboard the USS George Washington (CVN 73), signal and observe an incoming aircraft from the ship’s flight deck.
Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Everett Allen/US Navy

Command philosophy

Capt Estes explained the three-pronged philosophy he has for VAQ-129 is production, professionalism and fun: “I threw fun in because VAQ-129 is shore duty. Most of the people that rotate in to VAQ-129 come from sea duty and have been on extended deployments on carriers for seven or eight months at a time. That’s a constant reminder that I’m the one that can throttle back and allow folks to take a three-day weekend, let folks take the leave they have built up over an operational tour – leave they have not been able to take because of the ops calendar – and ensure they get a little of the RNR they deserve as they rotate into shore duty.

“It’s a tough balance. It would be very easy to run at max blast all the time, but as skipper one of my most important jobs is to make sure I don’t burn folks out. If they have a horrible time at 129 because the ops tempo is just too robust, they are going to get out. I have to show them this is a viable career: there is time off, there is a way to recharge the batteries and to make sure they don’t lose the sense of fun in their job.

“Getting to be skipper of 129 was a complete surprise. They call it a bonus command, because it’s another chance at command and another chance to fly. I’m emboldened by the quality of the people we get through the door, from the Lieutenant junior grade arriving from training command to the instructor that arrives from the fleet and all the enlisted ratings. I feel like I’m holding on to their coat tails every day. I’m not trying to lead the fight I am absolutely trying to keep up with them. It gives me a lot of hope for the future of naval aviation. The Growler community is still growing, we are still buying Growlers, so it’s a great place to be and will remain so for a long time. I’m very excited with the amount of emphasis the DoD [Department of Defense] at large is putting on the electromagnetic spectrum, because I think it’s an aspect that went largely ignored for 40 years or so. Now it’s becoming a battle space, and if we can corner the market on that, no one is going to be able to touch us.”

To conclude AIR International’s two-part feature on VAQ-129, we present a selection of images depicting current CAG-birds from seven EA-18G Growler squadrons assigned to the US Navy’s Electronic Attack Wing Pacific.