Changes continued to keep the A-6Es up to date. Composite wing replacement and systems/weapons improvement programs maintained full A-6E combat systems capability, with initial operational capability realized in FY 88 with VA-75 deployment onboard USS John F. Kennedy (CV 67).
Ribbonized, Organized, Integrated Wiring [ROI] was developed in the mid 80's for the A-6E Intruder pylon upgrade program. ROI is a type of "organized wiring" using woven ribbons of standard Milspec or commercial wire. Several ribbons are normally stacked to form rectangular cross sectioned harnesses that are usually shielded and terminated into standard Milspec or commercial connectors. Because of this, ROI is compatible with existing avionics boxes and systems without requiring modifications. The modularity of ROI makes replacement of components much less troublesome for maintainers. Since the wiring system is broken into smaller assemblies, fewer portions are disturbed. A connector with a problem is part of a relatively simple assembly that can be replaced, or removed, repaired, and reinstalled. It is the basis for the very successful wiring used in the Osprey Tiltrotor. It has been designed for the C-2A Greyhound upgrade, and is being designed into the UH-1Y Huey and AH-1Z Cobra helicopters for the Marines. Many other applications are flying as well.
The major concern in the 1980s was the increasing problem of older A-6s using up their wing fatigue life. Other military aircraft were suffering similar problems, all aggravated by longer than anticipated service lives, changes in mission usage and increased weight. With the objective of extending the service life of A-6Es, the Navy sought the construction of new, longer life wings, awarding the contract to Boeing for its proposed composite-construction wings.
Early studies leading toward a stealthy "advanced technology attack" replacement for the A-6 suggested a significantly improved A-6 would be a useful interim development. A contract was signed with Grumman for five development A-6Fs in 1984. These would have the composite wings, a revolutionary radar system and new GE F404 engines. The engines would be the same as those in the F/A-18 Hornet, except without afterburners. With other changes to enhance survivability, the A-6F would mark a major improvement in the A-6's effectiveness. While no attention was paid to reduced radar signatures in the A-6F, one can suspect that this was also probably being looked at as a possible further step. The first A-6F flew in August 1987, the second later that year. By the time the third flew in summer 1988, funding constraints ended the program, except for avionics testing as a possible future upgrade.
Intruders had seen further combat: over Lebanon in 1983 and more effectively against both Libyan and Iranian vessels and targets in 1986 and 1988, respectively. Several carriers in the eighties operated with two squadrons of A-6s as part of heavy strike wings, with a total of eight squadrons each in Naval Air Forces, U.S. Atlantic and Pacific fleets, five Marine squadrons and two reserve as the decade ended.
On 17 January 1991, Desert Shield became Desert Storm, and Intruder squadron aircrews were once again in combat -- in a very different geographic scenario from Vietnam. Loss of two Navy A-6s in the first day's action led to tactics revisions, and only one more A-6 was lost to enemy ground fire during the remaining nearly six weeks until the 27 February cease-fire. KA-6Ds and A-6Es using buddy tanker stores were part of an extensive aerial refueling force. Two shore-based Marine A-6 squadrons flew all-weather deep strike and later close air support missions without losses. The A-6 aircraft were used extensively during Operation Desert Storm, providing precision bombing on a wide range of targets. The night and all weather attack capabilities enabled the A-6 to neutralize anti-aircraft batteries and attack well protected tactical targets with minimum casualties. The precision munitions used by the A-6 provided exact targeting of targets in a complex environment.
The combination of A-6 capabilities, precision smart weapons and stealth for carrier strike missions was clearly supported by combat experience. The returning A-6 squadrons that were still flying metal-winged airplanes turned them in for upgraded composite wing SWIP versions as rapidly as two NADEPs and two contractors could make them available. The Navy meanwhile initiated a new program to develop an alternative in lieu of the A-12, and another program for a more capable Super Hornet, which would overcome the payload/radius and internal volume limitations of the F/A-18. Succeeding months saw the Marine Corps accelerate replacement of its A-6Es with F/A-18Ds in order to make rewinged A-6Es available for carrier air wings. The various efforts for an A-12 replacement failed to find an affordable approach, and collapse of the Soviet Union placed more pres-sures on U.S. military expenditures. Potential reductions in total opera- tional squadrons brought an end to A-6E procurement, and deliveries ended in January 1992.
Only the wing fatigue situation spoiled the picture. The Marine Corps made plans to transition its A-6 squadrons to F/A-18Ds to assist the Navy inventory, while the Naval Aviation Depots (NADEP) at Alameda, Calif., and Norfolk, Va., undertook additional rewinging to overcome the operational deficit. Intruders remained mainstays of the fleet, even as their contemporaries, the F-4 Phantom and A-7 Corsair II, were being replaced by F/A-18s.
By the mid-1980's, the A-6 was beginning to show its age. The accumulated stress of high-g catapulted takeoffs and arrested landings on carriers and the long exposure to salt water were beginning to take a toll on the life of airframe components. Studies were underway for a new wing design, and inspections of the A-6 structure revealed major corrosion problems.
In January 1987, a fatal accident resulted in an investigation of the structural health and projected lifetime of the A-6 fleet. At the time of the accident, U.S. Marine Corps First Lieutenant Bob Pandis and his bombardier/navigator, Lieutenant Colonel John Cavin, were practicing dive-bombing missions at the El Centro Naval Base in California. During a 40-deg diving run at about 500 knots, the left wing of their A-6E broke off the aircraft at an altitude of about 8,000 ft and the aircraft began to spin wildly out of control.
Prior to this accident, 72 A-6 aircraft had been temporarily grounded and another 109 were operating under flight restrictions. The Boeing Company had begun to design a new wing under a Navy contract that was awarded in 1985. With a carbon fiber-epoxy resin torsion box, light alloy control surfaces, and some titanium components, the new wing was much lighter and designed for four times the fatigue life of the existing wing. The composite wing was retrofitted to about 200 A-6E aircraft, which significantly increased the aircraft's capability, safety, and operational life. In addition to becoming a retrofit for the A-6E fleet, the wing was also intended for a new, advanced version of the A-6 to be known as the A-6F. The A-6F was later canceled in the prototype stage when the Navy decided to replace the A-6 fleet with the stealth A-12 aircraft.
By 1988, the team of McDonnell Douglas and General Dynamics began to build the A-6 replacement called the A-12 Avenger. Defense Secretary Richard Cheney cancelled the $57 billion project after cost overruns exceeded $2.7 billion dollars in the development phase. Nonetheless, the decision to retire the A-6 was unchanged, and the F/A-18 Hornet became the replacement aircraft for the Intruder.
Navy operational units underwent major reductions in 1993 as part of post-cold war cutbacks. Each deployed carrier's air wing still included an A-6E squadron; however, a decision was made to retire the last A-6Es during 1997. With F-14 Tomcats picking up the strike role that had been included in their original design but never operationally implemented, the combined F-14 and F/A-18 air wings could meet mission requirements with one less aircraft model to be supported.
The 19 December 1996 launch of an A-6E Intruder from the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN 65) marked the last Intruder squadron to fly from the deck of an aircraft carrier. The last flight of the A-6 Intruder occurred in early 1997. After over 30 years of service, the A-6 Intruder and the final A-6 commands disestablished at 2:00 P.M. (1400) on 28 February 1997. The commands disestablishing were Attack Squadron 196 (VA-196) and Commander Attack Wing, US Pacific Fleet (COMATKWINGPAC) at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island. Attack Squadron 75 (VA-75) and the Attack Wing, U.S. Atlantic Fleet were disestablished at another ceremony at Naval Air Station Oceana, Virginia also on 28 February 1997.
The Intruder engendered an esprit de corps in its aircrew that became legendary. This "spirit of attack" -- as recounted in Stephen Coonts's book, Flight of the Intruder -- personified the camaraderie and fraternity of the A-6 community. Intruder aircrewmen are some of Naval Aviation's most-decorated combat veterans. Many of the more recent alumni of this elite community are serving in other aircraft missions throughout Naval Aviation, ensuring that the warfighting legacy and the spirit of attack lives on. From a bombardier nav-igator's viewpoint, the aircraft had a significant impact on the Naval Flight Officer's career viability. Finally, the NFO was accepted as an equal partner with the pilot in the medium-attack mission. The camaraderie coalesced into a cohesive, tight team for the entire active life of the A-6 in the fleet. People comment enthusiastically about the aircraft's capability, which was awesome during its life span, but the positive effect that the Intruder had on the tailhook community was infinite.
One hundred composite wing Intruders went to the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center, Davis-Monthan AFB, AZ, for storage, while mostly older metal and composite-winged versions went to various museum and display locations.
By early 1999 the US Department of Defense had offered the A-6 Intruder and A-7 Corsair II aircraft to US allies. The aircraft are supported by Northrop Grumman's Aircraft Modification and Overhaul Programs organization. The company provides technical modifications and sales support services to the U.S. Naval Air Systems Command for the international effort, as well as customer integration, training, and support services for the aircraft. The configuration offered to international customers is identical to those U.S. Navy A-6E attack aircraft that were used successfully during Operation Desert Storm, with long-range, all-weather, day-or-night pinpoint bombing capabilities and standoff missile strikes. Additional A-6E missions are aerial refueling, escort, and recovery. Following the retirement from the US Navy inventory in 1997, the A-6 aircraft are now in storage, so a number are available to international customers.
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