A-6 & A-7
The A-6 at war
A-6 development centered on the various electronics systems, but made little change to the basic airframe. Enemy radar was first attacked with AGM-45 Shrikes, but these had a short range, and became lost when the hostile radiation source was turned off. The improved AGM-78 Standard anti-radiation missile was introduced into combat in March 1968 by an A-6B, one of 19 A-6As modified to launch those missiles.
Grumman completed 488 A-6As by December 1970, many of which were modified to later configurations. The second one became an EA-6A ECM type first flown April 26, 1963, and followed by five more EA-6A conversions. Six EA-6As were also converted from production models in 1965, and 15 more new EA-6As delivered in 1969, all going to the Marine’s VMAQ-2.
Night attacks on the Ho Chi Minh Trail were possible for 12 A-6As converted to A-6C models in 1970 with a TRIM system, housed in a ventral cupola for infrared and low-light television. Twelve 531-pound Mk-82 Snakeye bombs could be carried to a 575-mile combat radius, or 20 to a 360-mile radius.
Another A-6A system was the Pave Knife pod (AQ-10A) tested by VA-145 from November 1972. Laser-guided Mk 82 and Mk 84 bombs successfully destroyed bridges that had survived ordinary munitions. By the war’s end in January 1973, 68 Intruders of all types had been lost in combat, and 15 in operational accidents.
The first KA-6D tanker conversion was flown in May 1966, but 94 were modified by Grumman in 1970/72, providing the Navy with a carrier-based air tanker that could transfer 3,000-gallons of its 3,844-gallon load via a hose reel assembly.
The first EA-6B was converted from an A-6A and flown May 25, 1968, followed by six more conversions and then 48 new aircraft beginning service in January 1971. Two Navy squadrons were deployed in 1972 to support strike operations against North Vietnam.
The Navy established 12 electronic attack squadrons with Prowlers to protect carrier, Marine, and Air Force aircraft operations for the rest of the century. As improved electronics were introduced in 1975 and upgraded again in 1984, the production program was increased to 163 for squadrons operating as four-plane units on each carrier.
The first fleet launch of the 780-pound anti-radiation AGM-88A HARM missile was made from an EA-6B on August 5, 1986, by VAQ-131. Over 800 HARMs would be fired during Gulf War ECM missions.
The last EA-6B was delivered on July 29, 1991, but in 2000, 119 Prowlers were still available for ten active carrier-based VAQ units, five land-based squadrons, four Marine VMAQ squadrons, a reserve unit, and a fleet readiness training squadron.
Out-living the Cold War
The first of 205 new production A-6Es was accepted on September 17, 1971, and was joined by 241 conversions from earlier aircraft made by March 1980. These conversions were originally expected to cost only 1.6 million dollars each, compared to 9.5 million dollars for each new A-6E.