By Lt. j.g. Timothy Pryor
Electronic Attack Squadron (VAQ) 209 returned home to Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Washington, in April 2016 following a two-month expeditionary deployment to the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM)—a watershed moment nearly three years in the making for the Navy Reserve’s only electronic attack squadron.
Not only was this deployment the VAQ-209 “Star Warriors” first since 2011; it was its first since transitioning to the EA-18G Growler and relocating from Naval Air Facility Washington on Joint Base Andrews, Maryland.
In May 2013, VAQ-209 flight crews took their final flight in the venerable EA-6B Prowler and began a homeport shift to NAS Whidbey Island, the Navy’s home for electronic attack. Along the way, the Star Warriors moved people and equipment across the country, sent nearly 100 Sailors to both coasts on temporary training assignments, and put their aircrew and maintenance personnel through a year-long transition syllabus to learn to fly and maintain the new aircraft. This is not always easy, but it is a balance that the Star Warriors have become familiar with during their 38-year history flying and operationally deploying in the EA-6A “Electric Intruder,” EA-6B and now the EA-18G.
Established in 1977–the year the original “Star Wars” movie was released–VAQ-209 received special permission from Lucasfilm to use the name and Darth Vader’s likeness in their livery. The Star Warriors have been a model operational Reserve force, deploying in support of Operations Deny Flight (1993-95), Allied Force (1999), Southern Watch (1992-2003), and Northern Watch (1997-2003). Prior to their 2016 deployment, VAQ-209 deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan in five of the six years from 2006 to 2011 in support of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom.
In January 2016, after a year-and-a-half of training and inspections, the Star Warriors made history with their first operational Growler deployment. VAQ-209 was able to fill the Pacific Command requirement in lieu of extending an active squadron’s deployment. VAQ-209 began its deployment in Guam where it participated in an AGM-88 High-speed Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM) live-fire exercise with U.S. Air Force units, honed their airborne electronic attack skills, and finally participated in Exercise Cope North, a combined exercise designed to increase interoperability among U.S. and coalition air forces operating in the Pacific Theater.
“Cope North was a wonderful learning opportunity for the squadron and a highly successful way for VAQ-209 to begin deployment,” said Lt. Cmdr. Pete Scheu, a Reserve squadron maintenance officer from San Diego, California.
“Across a three-week exercise, our operations and maintenance teams pulled together to complete every scheduled sortie in order to provide critical electronic attack training for our crews and our coalition partners.”
In February, the squadron left the beaches of Guam for the snow of Misawa Air Base in northern Japan. While in Misawa, the Star Warriors integrated with the U.S. Air Force’s 35th Fighter Wing and the Navy’s Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 5 to further the joint collaboration that began on Guam.
In March, the squadron detached to Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea (ROK), to participate in a maritime counter special operations forces exercise with Air Force and Navy units from the ROK, along with the U.S. Air Force and Navy units. In addition to gaining exposure to real world flying conditions on the Korean peninsula, VAQ-209 was able to plan and integrate with USS John C. Stennis (CVN) 74 Carrier Strike Group and embarked CVW-9, which were on patrol in the Western Pacific.
“The joint integration that we were exposed to while in Osan was nothing short of eye-watering,” said Lt. Cmdr. Cameron Dekker, squadron safety officer and officer-in-charge of VAQ-209’s Osan detachment.
Upon leaving Korea, VAQ-209 returned to Misawa Air Base to turn over with VAQ-138, an active expeditionary Growler squadron, and prepare for their return trip across the Pacific. As the deployment came to a close, VAQ-209 once again proved that it will continue to provide the capability of an active Growler squadron when operations require it.
“For two months, VAQ-209 provided the same capability and capacity as any active component squadron, and the supported commanders did not notice any difference,” said squadron Commanding Officer Cmdr. Matthew Ross. “That was our goal. We gained valuable experience for the squadron, and allowed our active component counterparts to remain home with their families. All our folks appreciated the opportunity to contribute in such a meaningful way.”
The squadron returned home safely to their families and their civilian careers in early April.
“Our first deployment was a great success,” Ross said. “The squadron was able to prove itself in many different arenas across the Pacific and gain valuable training and experience. Our maintenance effort was fantastic. The entire squadron outperformed any standard I could have set for them and I am immensely proud of the bar that we set. It was also great to lead the squadron back to the deployment cycle again.”
Lt. j.g. Timothy Pryor is the Electronic Attack Squadron (VAQ) 209 Intelligence Officer.