Requirement and testing
The first EA-18G at the roll-out ceremony on 3 August 2006
On 15 November 2001, Boeing successfully completed an initial flight demonstration of F/A-18F "F-1" fitted with the ALQ-99 electronic warfare system to serve as the EA-18 Airborne Electronic Attack (AEA) concept aircraft. In December 2003, the US Navy awarded a development contract for the EA-18G to Boeing. As primary contractor, Boeing was to construct the forward fuselage, wings and perform the final assembly. Northrop Grumman was the principal airframe subcontractor and they would supply the center and aft fuselage as well as the principal electronic combat system. In 2003, the Navy expected to receive 90 EA-18Gs.
The first EA-18G test aircraft entered production on 22 October 2004. The first test aircraft, known as EA-1, was rolled out on 3 August 2006, before making its maiden flight at St. Louis on 15 August 2006; it was later ferried to Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland on 22 September 2006. EA-1 primarily supports ground testing in the Air Combat Environment Test and Evaluation Facility (ACETEF) anechoic chamber.
The second aircraft (EA-2) first flew on 10 November 2006, and was delivered to NAS Patuxent River on 29 November 2006. EA-2 is an AEA flight test aircraft, initially flying on Pax River's Atlantic Test Range (ATR) for developmental test of the AEA system before transitioning to the Electronic Combat Range (ECR, or 'Echo Range') in Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake in California. Both aircraft are assigned to VX-23 "Salty Dogs". EA-1 and EA-2 are F/A-18Fs F-134 and F-135, pulled from the St. Louis production line and modified by Boeing to the EA-18G configuration. However, since they were not built initially as Growlers, the Navy has designated these two test aircraft as NEA-18Gs. There were five Growlers flying in the flight test program as of June 2008.
An EA-18G Growler alongside an EA-6B Prowler shortly after arriving at NAS Whidbey Island, 9 April 2007.
In an April 2006 report, the U.S. Government Accountability Office expressed concerns. The GAO felt the electronic warfare systems on the EA-18G were not fully mature so there is a risk of "future cost growth and schedule delays". The report recommended that the DoD consider purchasing additional ICAP III upgrades for EA-6Bs to fill any current and near-term capability gaps and restructure the initial EA-18G production plans so that procurement takes place after the aircraft has "demonstrated full functionality". In a 2008 GAO report, the director of the DoD's Operational Test and Evaluation department questioned the workload on the two-person Growler crew to replace the Prowler's crew of four.
VAQ-133 EA-18G Growler at NAS Whidbey Island
The U.S Navy has ordered a total of 57 aircraft to replace its in-service EA-6B Prowlers, most of which will be based at NAS Whidbey Island. The US DoD gave approval for the EA-18G program to begin low-rate initial production in 2007. The EA-18G was scheduled to finish flight testing in 2008. The Navy planned to buy approximately 85 aircraft in 2008. Approval for full-rate production was expected in the third quarter of 2009, and was given on 23 November 2009. Boeing planned to ramp up production to 20 aircraft per year. On 9 July 2009, General James Cartwright told the United States Senate Committee on Armed Services that the choice had been to continue the F/A-18 production line because the warfighting commanders needed more aerial electronic warfare capability that only the EA-18G could provide.
The Navy's submission for the 2011 defense budget put forth by the Obama Administration calls for four EA-18G Growler squadrons to be added to the fleet. On 14 May 2010, Boeing and the US Department of Defense reached an agreement for a multi-year contract for an additional 66 F/A-18E/Fs and 58 EA-18Gs over the next four years. This will raise the total to 114 EA-18Gs on order.
The Pentagon's Director of Operational Test and Evaluation determined that the EA-18G was "still not operationally suitable" in February 2011. Prime contractor Boeing is working to address issues with software updates. In December 2011, Operational Test and Evaluation concluded that the EA-18G software was "operationally effective and suitable".
On 19 December 2014, the Navy publicly reported that it wants to modify the production contract with Boeing to slow production of the Growler from three airplanes per month to two. It will also purchase an additional 15 Growlers, funded by a spending bill that will go to President Obama for signature in late December 2014. Boeing would then be able to continue running the St. Louis production line through 2017. Boeing has said it cannot sustain the production line at fewer than two airplanes per month.