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Navy Reserve airborne electronic attack squadron makes final Md. flight

For nearly a quarter-century, members of the airborne electronic attack squadron VAQ-209 have launched their jets from this air base in Prince George's County for deployments over Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Earlier this month, Navy Cmdr. James King and Lt. Cmdr. Justin Van Hoose climbed into the cockpits of the squadron's last two EA-6B Prowlers for a final flight before the squadron moves this summer from Maryland to the West Coast.

The Navy has ordered the squadron — the only one of its kind staffed by reservists — to join the dozen active-duty squadrons at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island in Washington State.

As an airborne electronic attack squadron, VAQ-209 flies into war zones to jam enemy radar so bombers and fighter aircraft can perform their missions.

The relocation, which was announced last year over the objections of Maryland's U.S. senators, amounts to a rare loss for the state.

With its proximity to Washington, its long-established military installations and its robust defense industry, Maryland has more often been the beneficiary of recent realignment decisions, as lawmakers and defense officials have sought to concentrate commands and elements that share similar functions.

That approach has led leaders to consolidate research, testing and development at Aberdeen Proving Ground, biological warfare at Fort Detrick, and information systems, intelligence and cyberwarfare at Fort Meade, among other examples.

It has also led the Navy to order VAQ-209 to Whidbey Island, where the reservists will join their active-duty counterparts in transitioning from the EA-6B Prowler to the faster, more powerful EA-18G Growler.

Cmdr. Casey Casad, commanding officer of the squadron, called the move to the new aircraft "a wonderful opportunity that the Navy is making available to VAQ-209" — and recognition of the reservists' contributions during 12 combat deployments in the past 15 years.

Reservists are service members who typically have other, civilian careers, but meet periodically to drill and may be called to active duty. They have been activated frequently during the past decade.

"Generally, the reserves are given bottom-of-the-barrel equipment," Casad said. "They are given the scraps left over that the fleet's no longer using. In this instance, the Navy is making an opportunity for its reserve force to get front-line, top-level technology equipment in front of many fleet units."

Given that plan, Casad said, the move to Whidbey Island "was in the taxpayers' best interest."

"It's too logistically expensive to keep one squadron on this side of the country when the other 12 squadrons and all of the support infrastructure for them are over there," he said. "This was entirely, purely, a business-case analysis."

The job of VAQ-209 is to "deny, degrade or destroy" enemy air defenses. The self-styled Star Warriors interfere with enemy communications, jam aircraft-identifying radar, and fire missiles at defense systems to open airspace for friendly forces.

VAQ-209 formed at Naval Air Station Norfolk in Virginia in 1977, the year of the first "Star Wars" movie. The first members called themselves the Star Warriors, and secured permission from producer George Lucas to use the image of Darth Vader in their insignia.

The squadron arrived at Andrews in 1989 and began flying the Prowler. In the 1990s, members helped to enforce both the northern and southern no-fly zones over Iraq and flew missions over Bosnia.

More recently, they have served in Afghanistan and Iraq, and stand ready to deploy wherever they might be called.

They leave Andrews having flown more than 36,000 hours of what the Navy calls Class A mishap-free operations: No casualties, no crashes, no major problems.

Sens. Ben Cardin and Barbara A. Mikulski had asked Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert to leave VAQ-209 at Andrews. The Maryland Democrats were joined in the effort by Republican Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, a former member of the squadron.

Mikulski called the Navy's decision "short-sighted and misguided." Cardin said he was "sad" to see the squadron go.

"During such tight budget times," Cardin said, "I hoped the Navy would have reconsidered its plan for this cross-country relocation that will cost a great deal of money, disrupt the lives of hundreds of American service members, and remove an important strategic asset from the D.C. area."

About 90 of the squadron's 238 members plan to follow VAQ-209 as it moves to Whidbey Island on July 31. The rest have been left to find other billets in the Navy, or to retire.

Cmdr. Arch Watkins is planning to stay with the squadron — for now, at least — traveling to the West Coast to drill, while keeping his home in Baltimore and his job at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel.

"My intention is to make the transition, stick with it for a couple of years, and then reassess," said Watkins, who heads the squadron's maintenance division. "Obviously, it will be challenging to continue to drill on the other side of the continent. But I'm looking forward to it. I think that it will be fun."

Petty Officer 1st Class Keith Evans is looking forward to working on "brand new aircraft." A Jessup resident, he also plans to commute cross-country for drills.

"The reserve community is used to getting hand-me-downs from the active components, so this is definitely an exciting moment for the squadron," he said. "Especially since we've done so much with the Prowler. It will tell you what we can do with the Growler."

Casad called the new Growler "vastly more capable" than the Vietnam-era Prowler. It's faster and can fly higher.

"The biggest thing that the EA-18G brings is the ability to better position itself on the battlefield," he said.

The new jet can also defend itself, with offensive, forward-firing weapons.

Cmdr. Jeffrey Woods said the move will be good for the squadron, even if he won't be a part of it. The electronic counter-measures officer, a member of the squadron since 2000, made his final flight earlier this month. He's planning to retire.

"Personally, I'm going to really miss being a part of the squadron," said Woods, who lives in Pennsylvania but works as a project manager at Northrop Grumman in Linthicum.

"I wanted to do this since I was a little kid," Woods said. "And being able to do this for 24 years, to serve the country … I wish I could start over and do it again."

To maintain their readiness, members continued to fly training missions out of Andrews until recently.

Casad invited former members to the squadron's hangar on May 17 for the final flight. To mark the occasion, pilots King and Van Hoose roared down the runway side by side in a rare double launch.

Casad described the squadron's departure as "emotional."

"All military units develop ties with the communities that support them," he said. "We have a ton of investment here. We live here, we patronize the businesses, we send our children to school here. That's difficult.

"But we have a mission to get qualified on the EA-18G, and that can only occur at Whidbey Island."

matthew.brown@baltsun.com

twitter.com/matthewhaybrown

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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