By Don C. East

When the Cold War Museum asked permission to place my histories of the U.S. Navy’s two Airborne Electronic Reconnaissance Squadrons (VQ-1 and VQ-2) in their museum exhibit and on their web site, a short post script to update the story from its 1986 cut off date until the current year of 2008 was deemed necessary. The following is a brief summary of the Navy’s electronic reconnaissance (sometimes called Signals Intelligence or SIGINT) squadron activities since 1986.

The two squadrons, VQ-1 and VQ-2 have continued their fast-pace missions flown with fleet and national tasking through the remainder of the 1980s with the aging EP-3E (ARIES) and EA-3B (SKY WARRIOR) aircraft.

On January 28, 1987, seven more men died when VQ-2 EA-3B Ranger 12 crashed as it attempted to recover aboard the USS Nimitz in the Mediterranean Sea. Killed were LCDR Ronald R. Callender, LT Stephen H. Batchelder, LT James D. Richards, LT Alan A. Levine, AT2 Richard A. Herzing, CT2 Craig R. Rudolph and CT3 Patrick R. Price. The EA-3B in this crash was eight years older than the 26-year old pilot. Ironically, on the same day as this crash, America observed the first anniversary of the seven Americans killed in the space shuttle Challenger explosion. Unlike the much publicized Challenger loss, The public was informed of the VQ-2 Ranger 12 loss in a one-paragraph statement issued by the public affairs officers in the pentagon. This tragic accident brought the total to two hundred and seventeen the number of U.S. Navy airborne electronic reconnaissance personnel lost in shoot downs or accidents.

After the breakup of the USSR in 1991, the Soviet Navy receded from the world’s oceans, and the Soviets pulled back from their Third World client states. This should have relieved some of the intense operational pressure on the VQ squadrons. However, at this same time we became involved in the Persian Gulf with conflict in Kuwait and Iraq. Then shortly thereafter in 2003, with the terrorist bombing of American targets, we became involved in Iraq and Afghanistan in the Global War on Terrorism. These events placed even more commitments on the Navy’s two electronic reconnaissance squadrons and their aging aircraft.

The Navy finally officially retired the venerable EA-3B aircraft in October 1991 after it had continued operations in Desert Shield and Desert Storm. However, the old bird would not go quietly, it was due some accolades. The EA-3B was honored on two occasions after its retirement. During a ceremony on 13 July 2004, an EA-3B aircraft was dedicated to the National Security Agency’s Cold War memorial named the National Vigilance Park on the Fort George G. Meade reservation in Maryland. The park honors all military crews who risked, and often lost, their lives performing airborne signals intelligence during the Cold War. The dedicated EA-3B bears the markings of the VQ-2 Ranger 12 aircraft discussed earlier. More recently, a second EA-3B has been selected as a memorial. This aircraft was initially installed as a memorial to VQ-2’s Commanding Officer Ted Daum and his crew near the BOQ in Rota, Spain. After VQ-2’s Movement to CONUS, it was decided to relocate this aircraft. The bird was prepared for departure by former VQ volunteers and soon will be enroute American soil. This EA-3B, BUNO 146457, is now proudly on display on board the retired aircraft carrier U.S.S. Yorktown at Patriots Point in Charleston, South Carolina.

The follow-on aircraft to the EA-3B would not come for a few more years. When it arrived, it came the form of a band-aid capability called the ES-3A (SHADOW). This program resulted in sixteen modified S-3 (VIKING) aircraft that entered into operational service in 1993. Like all prior VQ aircraft, these S-3 airframes were older models handed-down from the carrier-based anti-submarine community (VS). The ES-3As were organized into two new Navy electronic reconnaissance squadrons, the VQ-5 (Sea Shadows) and the VQ-6 (Black Ravens), based at North Island, California and Cecil Field/NAS Jacksonville respectively. The ES-3A crew was comprised of a Pilot, an NFO Senior Electronic Warfare Evaluator (SEVAL), and two Electronic Warfare Operators (EWOP). However, this stop-gap program only lasted a total of five years before both squadrons and all sixteen aircraft were decommissioned. Excessive utilization of the ES-3A for both the electronic reconnaissance and aerial tanking roles resulted in the need for an earlier than expected replacement for the dismally performing reconnaissance equipment. At that time, naval aviation was strapped for cash, making the ES-3A upgrade an easy target for budget-driven decision makers in 1998-99. Since that time, there has not been a manned airborne electronic reconnaissance capability organic to the Navy’s aircraft carriers. Fortunately for the United States, all conflicts and operations the Navy has been involved in since then have been in regions of the globe where land-based EP-3E aircraft could provide the needed SIGINT support. With the return of the Russia Navy and the emergence of Chinese blue water fleets, the critical need for an on-board airborne signals intelligence capability for our aircraft carriers will become painfully evident in the near future.

The aging EP-3E aircraft has undergone various modifications to the mission equipment and other avionics since it was acquired by the Navy VQ squadrons in 1971. However, the average age of these VQ airframes themselves will be reaching near-critical state as of the end of this decade. Early in the 2000’s, the Navy finally awarded Boeing and Lockheed Martin contracts to work on the P-3C/Ep-3E replacement aircraft. Among the aircraft being considered for the EP-3E replacement include the P-8 (POSEIDON) and the Boeing 737. If in fact, the VQ community does get a new airframe as a replacement for the EP-3E, it will be a first in their long history. Assuming approval of either of the airframes discussed above, or an alternative, as the EP-3E replacement, even at the best pace of acquisition these new systems will not be operational until the middle of the next decade. This will leave the EP-3E continuing flight operations at extreme ages.

On April 1, 2001 a VQ-1 EP-3E flying an electronic reconnaissance mission in the Pacific became the focus of an international incident when it was severely damaged in a collision with a Chinese J-8 fighter jet. Through the valiant efforts of the American air crew, the EP-3E made an emergency landing at a Chinese airfield on Hainan Island. The Chinese released the crew after eleven days, but kept the aircraft until early July. After its release, the EP-3E was transported back to the United States in a Russian cargo aircraft. The damaged aircraft was repaired in Marietta, Georgia at the Lockheed Martin facility. After sixteen months of work, the EP-3E was flying once again and returned to regular duty.

2005 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Navy’s two original electronic reconnaissance squadrons (VQ-1 and VQ-2) and the ten year anniversary of the two new ones (VQ-5 and VQ-6). Since their humble beginnings in 1955, the two initial squadrons have undergone many changes in names, technology and operating bases. But the one common denominator all along has been they always perform their vital mission using old, had-me-down aircraft.

Today, during their fifty plus years of existence, the VQ squadrons have used several home bases while deploying globally to numerous forward operating bases. In 1996, VQ-1 completed a relocation from its home base in Guam to the Naval Air Station at Whidbey Island, Washington. VQ-2 followed suite in 2005 when it made the move from Rota, Spain to NAS Whidbey Island. For the first time in their history, the two squadrons were then operating from a common home base as they each continued to forward deploy to their respective theatre of operations. Both VQ-1 and VQ-2 currently operate under the administrative and training control of Maritime Patrol and Reconnaissance Wing Ten. When deployed, these units shift to the operational control of the Battle Force or theatre operational commanders for tasking.

By mid-2008, it was obvious that the operational tempo of the VQ squadrons would continue on a rapidly rising curve. For several years, the Chinese have been building up their navy and changing its essence from a coastal brown water to an open-ocean blue water force. To add to the VQ’s already strained tasking, the Russian Navy is currently announcing that the bear is coming back to the world’s oceans for a swim. While rapidly rebuilding their navy after the fall of the USSR, the Russians also appear to be returning to operations in the Middle East from a base in Syria and in the Caribbean and Latin America with support to regimes in Bolivia, Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua and others. Russian long-range flights from northern Russia to the Caribbean and South America have resumed after a two-decade hiatus. In September of 2008 a Russian Navy task group, including the impressive nuclear cruiser Peter the Great, is enroute port call and operations in Latin America - shades of the Cold War days! These emerging events, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the need for routine Navy electronic reconnaissance flights in other parts of the globe, and other national reconnaissance tasking will require a more modern and robust navy signals collection capability for the foreseeable future.

A major factor in the history of the Navy’s VQ squadrons has been the indifference of Navy leadership over the airborne electronic reconnaissance acquisition system. The squadrons have managed somehow to stay alive by their stellar performance and ability to overcome years of naval aviation leadership coolness to airborne ISR (Information, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) in general, and SIGINT in particular. The snail pace of initiating an EP-3E follow-on airframe and the total lack of a carrier-based asset appears to be another example of this mind set. Therefore, the pessimism found on the closing page of the original Tailhook Magazine VQ-1 and VQ-2 story continues to this day, twenty-two years later.

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