25 February 2012

The Grumman A-6E TRAM: Making the Intruder More Lethal

The patch worn by A-6 Intruder crews. Note the radar and TRAM sensor symbolism
The main variant of the Grumman A-6 Intruder to fight in the Vietnam War was the first production version, the A-6A. The next two variants, the defense-suppression A-6B and the night attack-optimized A-6C, were just modifications of the basic A-6A variant and both the B and C versions served in only small numbers given their specialized roles. The next variant was actually the tanker version, the KA-6D. With the experience of combat, the Navy went ahead with the A-6E variant in 1968 which improved upon the deficiencies of the A-6A and replaced many of the 1950s-era systems with more modern equipment. With combat experience in the skies of Southeast Asia and over ten years of technological advancements, the A-6E was a major upgrade in capability, reliability and maintainability over the A-6A, with newer engines, a digital nav/attack system, a single multi-mode radar (the A-6A had two radars, which is why the Intruder had such a portly nose), and built-in test equipment that allowed the bombardier/navigator (B/N) to test the avionics before takeoff. On 22 September 1972, VA-85 "Black Falcons" embarked aboard the USS Forrestal were the first unit to take the new A-6E on an operational cruise. 

However, the navigation system of the new A-6E proved to be a weak spot and a few short years after the A-6E deployed with the fleet, CAINS (Carrier Airborne Inertial Navigation System) was added to the Intruder. Using the Litton AN/ASN-92 which was the same INS system used on the Grumman F-14 Tomcat and Lockheed S-3 Viking, an Intruder B/N literally plugged the aircraft's INS into the aircraft carrier's navigation systems to get a quick and very accurate initial fix before departing on a mission. But the most dramatic improvement to the capabilities of the Intruder came about at the same time as CAINS. At the time, there were a number of Intruder combat veterans assigned to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (OpNav) and with the Naval Air Systems Command. They spent their time getting upgrades and improvements pushed out to the Intruder fleet like CAINS.

A-6C TRIM. Note the prominent ventral gondola for the sensor.
One of the officers, Lieutenant Commander Lyle Bull, was working in the Aircraft Requirements Directorate of OpNav and decided to see what he could do to make the Intruder a full-capability all-weather/night attack aircraft that they had always dreamed about in Vietnam. During the war twelve A-6As were converted into the A-6C which had a large ventral gondola that housed the TRIM (Trails/Roads Interdiction Multi-Sensor) unit that had a FLIR and low-light TV (LLTV) unit for night attack missions over the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Large and aerodynamically bulky, TRIM also suffered from the relatively primitive state of the art in sensor technology at the time. Bull decided that TRIM was a good starting point for an improved system for the A-6E. This improved system became TRAM- Target Recognition Attack Multi-Sensor. In his position with OpNav, Bull had seen the state of the art in infrared technology and made the astute observation that there was space in the Intruder for an internal installation- because, as he put it, "Pods and sailors are not compatible". In the A-6A there was a separate search radar and a track radar in the portly nose- with the A-6E, a new Norden unit combined the functions into one radar and there was now space where the track radar used to be in the lower portion of the nose section. Bull had figured out that a 400-pound installation would fit perfectly into the space. 

In briefing his superiors on what TRAM could do for the A-6E, he pointed out that unlike TRIM which could only search and identify targets, TRAM would also incorporate an internal laser designator to mark targets for the new generation of laser guided bombs under development. Combined with the advances in sensor technology, an A-6E TRAM had a drastically improved bombing accuracy with miss distances of less than 10 feet, while today routine, such accuracy was stunning in the 1970s. However, in the lean funding environment following Vietnam, money for the R&D for TRAM had to be raided from other Naval Air Systems Command programs. Bull's superior, Rear Admiral Donald Davis, authorized $15 million in initial funding with the warning that the funding came from other programs which mean Bull wouldn't be liked- "They'll be after your ass, so watch yourself", he warned. 

A-6E TRAM prototype. Note the compactness of the installation.
Both Hughes and Texas Instruments agreed to develop competing designs for TRAM and Grumman readily agreed to handle testing and integration. Both systems were broadly similar differing in sensor details. TI had the advantage having developed the TRIM sensor during Vietnam- however, Hughes' design proved to better in testing and it was selected for the TRAM contract. As part of the TRAM integration, Grumman took the opportunity to upgrade the radar so it was better integrated with the TRAM sensor along with a new intertial navigation system. TRAM B/Ns would remark on the ease and simplicity of operating the laser designator. 

The A-6E TRAM prototype made its first flight at Grumman's Calverton facility on Long Island on 22 March 1974. With only a year of systems integration testing, Bull's system proved to be winner and the Navy began to procure TRAM units for the A-6E fleet. The first production A-6E TRAM flew on 29 November 1975 with VA-42 "Green Pawns" at NAS Oceana getting the first examples on 1 December 1975. Combined with CAINS, by the early 1980s the entire A-6E fleet was flying the most lethal Intruder variant yet and by that time, a Direction and Ranging Set (DRS) and Airborne Moving Target Indicator (AMTI) were added to the aircraft. This all made the A-6E TRAM Intruder the most accurate all-weather attack aircraft in the fleet if not all of the US forces. It would culminate with the A-6E TRAM being responsible for 85 percent of all the laser designations and LGB drops during Desert Storm. 

Source: Intruder: The Operational History of Grumman's A-6 by Mark Morgan & Rick Morgan. Schiffer Publishing, 2004, p131-133.


  1. The ol' A2F was a wining design, and I still think it's a shame the USN bet on the A-12, rather than the A-6F.

    1. i was working for Grumman when 2 A-6F's were built and test flown

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  3. It was my distinct privilege to have worked on the A-6E Intruder as an avionics technician attached to the "Bombing Buckeyes" of VA-85 while aboard the USS America back in early 90's. I still remember one of the decals affixed to the computer for the INS, "I am an AN/ASN 92 gyroscope device, I am worth my weight in gold and cost over 100,000 of your tax dollars..." It went on to say that it should only be transported in its approved container and of course to handle with care. The thing that's funny about all of that, is the fact that an unapproved means to correct a common maintenance problem was to hold it at about knee height from the deck and simply drop it in a way that it landed flat. That was done to 'free' the gimbals of the gyroscopes inside. I reckon the installation of the AN/ASN 92 in the nose wheel well of the plane was not the ideal place to put it, as it was subject to a lot of abrupt force applied to it during landings. Although the A-6 was already 30+ years old by time I was in the Navy, it was still a real workhorse with a long and distinguished service history. It is with a certain degree of sadness that both the A-6 and the great ship USS America have gone the way of the dodo, but they have given me fond memories that I wouldn't trade for all the gold in Ft. Knox.