by Tommy H. Thomason

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Grumman A-6A vs A-6E Intruder

30 January 2016: Corrections from Mick Roth and updated External Differences table

20 September 2015: Added detail provided by Mick Roth.

16 September 2015: Numerous changes have been incorporated over the past few days: Steve Belanger (see Richard Brumm (also see his comment below) and others have provided additional information. 

A model builder sometimes asks for the differences between the A-6A and the A-6E. There isn’t a simple answer. Initially, the major changes were avionics and other internal items, with the only notable external change being the ECM antennas—and that wasn't true for the first 20 or so A-6Es—and possibly the location of the inboard wing fence. Note also that over 200 As were rebuilt as Es, making Bureau Numbers unreliable as a differentiator. (The first production A-6E was 158041.)

The Bible for the A-6 is Intruder: The Operational History of Grumman’s A-6 by Mark and Rick Morgan, published by Schiffer.  The subtitle doesn't do it justice because it also covers development, configuration changes, and in-service problems. Rick has a Website.

Rick generously provided content and illustrations for this post but he only reviewed a first draft of the text so any errors and omissions are all mine.

The external changes can be simplified into the following categories:
Early As
Later As
Early Es
SWIP/Composite Wing

Note that I have arbitrarily differentiated Early and Late A-6As as circa 1970 after the incorporation of improved defensive systems in this summary.
Also see Brumm comment below.

Due to problems encountered in flight test and Navy evaluation, wingtip-mounted speed brakes were added at BuNo 149940 and the perforated fuselage-mounted speed brakes were deactivated shortly after the first A-6As were delivered to operational squadrons. The fuselage speed brake assembly was deleted entirely in production at BuNo 154170 and replaced with a blank panel. However, earlier A-6s, including those subsequently converted to A-6Es, retained the original perforated structure covering the speed brake well until it had to be replaced for cracking or corrosion. More than 10 were still flying with the original panel in 1991 while deployed for Operation Desert Storm. This is an example of a former A-6A in June 1983.
 Rick Morgan Photo

Early As had fairings attached to the forward portion of the tailhook and early Defensive Electronic Countermeasures (DECM) equipment and the ALE-18 chaff dispenser.
 The ALE-18 dispensed packets of chaff through a small slot on the lower left-hand side of the fuselage between the engine exhaust and the speed brake well. It was the production standard between production number 19 and 433.

 Small ALR-15 Radar Warning Receivers were mounted on the wingtips between the position lights on A-6A production number 19 through 358.

New and improved defensive systems were added as a result of combat experience, on the fly so to speak, which resulted in the Later A configuration. For example, two ALE-29A dispensers were added aft of a truncated Doppler radar antenna fairing beginning in either March 1969 and at production number 434 (Roth) or February 1970, replacing the ALE-18. These contained separate cartridges of either chaff or a flare with 30 tubes per dispenser.

The Later A-6A DECM antennas were boom mounted on the outboard pylon and under the leading edge of the wingtip:
Steve Belanger noted that the boom mounted antenna (AN/ALQ-100) was an airframe change dated 29 February 1968; the wingtip receivers (AN/APR-25), 30 April 1968. Mick Roth reported that the ALQ-100 was added at production number 310 and the APR-25 replaced the ALR-15 at production number 359. However, retrofit might have taken some time although A-6s that were in combat would get them as soon as possible during deployment. It's rare to see an A-6A that has one antenna and not the other but VMA (AW)-533 had only the wingtip receivers circa 1968/1969 on their 1541XX A-6As even though the addition of the ALQ-100 was the earlier change. This is an example:

John Murphy via Steve Belanger

Externally and from a modeler's perspective of the cockpit, the first 72 Es were basically the same as Later As except for ECM antennas (and even then the first A-6Es were delivered with the Later A-6A DECM antennas), the substitution of the GRU-7 seat (also retrofitted to some As) for the GRU-5 and possibly the location of the inboard wing fence.

Early A-6A Cockpit (gunsight protective cover in place):

Later A-6A Cockpit (note the addition of a radar warning display on the instrument panel above the center console):
 Scanned from the VMA(AW)-533 1972-1973 Cruise Book by Steve Belanger

The A-6E cockpit was initially similar to the Later A-6A's except for the GRU-7 ejection seat.

The ejection seats:

Production A-6Es #16 and 18 were delivered to VA-65 with A-6A DECM antennas.

The A-6A ECM antenna on the outboard pylon was subsequently replaced on A-6Es with three in a large fairing on the inboard-wing leading-edge. It had a recess in it for the main landing gear door.

The inboard portion of the A-6A's stall strip on the leading edge, shown here, was retained.

This change to the A-6E inboard leading edge resulted in the inboard wing fence being relocated slightly inboard. On the A-6A (and A-6C contrary to its SAC drawing), it was located slightly but notably outboard of the inboard pylon. On the A-6E, it was moved to be slightly but still clearly inboard of the inboard pylon.

Note that after the first few deployments, the black radomes were replaced with tan ones (the natural color of the fiberglass) to reduce conspicuity. Grey and white paints were subsequently approved that did not affect transitivity.

The inlets and vents on the right shoulder panel were different:
CAINS (Carrier Airborne Inertial Navigation System) was the replacement for the original INS that was one of the avionics carryovers from the A. It resulted in the addition of a large external air scoop on the upper aft fuselage and a small exhaust on the lower left aft fuselage (the original inlet at the base of the vertical fin was blanked off). In production, CAINS preceded the installation of TRAM (Target Recognition Attack Multisensor) turrets but all production A-6s delivered with CAINS had provisions for TRAM, including a removable panel at the bottom of the radome and the relocation of the anticollision light from the nose landing gear door to a light under each engine nacelles (two were doubtless required to meet the minimum viewing angles). The TACAN antenna was relocated to the underside of the left engine nacelle.

Note that the first A-6As had the angle of attack indexer lights evenly spaced along the side of the door and no TACAN antenna on it.

Since CAINS preceded TRAM, all A-6s with the sensor turret under the forward fuselage had the large inlet scoop, but not all A-6s with the large inlet scoop had the turret. However, the latter configuration would be relatively rare although it could occur simply due to a requirement for turret repair with no spare available. This is a former A-6A with the CAINS air scoop but no turret.

TRAM, which provided FLIR (Forward Looking Infra Red) among other things, resulted in a notable change on both sides of the cockpit.

 Note that there is one screen instead of two for the pilot and vice versa on the right side.
As in the earlier A-6s, when in use the bombardier's scopes were covered by a hood to maximize readability.

SWIP (Systems/Weapon Improvement Program) was a package of avionics changes and a new, all-composite wing that would extend the A-6’s service life. Because of delays in the wing’s design and development, some aircraft received some of the SWIP changes before than the wing. The only external SWIP change feature might be the addition of an aft-facing DECM antenna mounted above the fuel dump on the composite wing and possibly on the metal wing. Note that formation ("slime") lights were added to the wingtip (and the fuselage as shown above), possibly in production with BuNo 161092, but beginning in October 1982 in any event.

The composite wing configuration is covered in detail here:

The later formation lights replaced much smaller rectangular orange lights on the fuselage.
 Note that this A-6E is a former A-6A that has the CAINS air scoop, the perforated panel over the speed brake well, and a panel on the underside of the nose in lieu of the TRAM turret (see The picture is easy to date as taken in April 1980 since this is one of the airplanes with ID markings added for the Tehran hostage rescue mission.

The SWIP  improvements were supposed to include a head-up display for the pilot but this doesn't seem to have been realized before the A-6s were prematurely put out to pasture.


  1. Thanks for taking this on Tommy - a rather daunting task given the subtle complexities, overlaps, and exceptions to the rules!

    As you point out, BuNo 158041 was the first new build A-6E. The last Alpha model produced was 157029. 240 A-6As were rebuilt to Echo standards (and re-designated as A-6Es) from 1972 to 1977. These upgraded airframes retained their original tail numbers however, making positive identification tricky, at least during the mid seventies, as you allude to. Grumman's paint shop practices didn't help either, as the aircraft type block was stenciled in tiny one inch yellow font on the rear fuselage, difficult or impossible to discern from period photographs!

    But one thing is for sure: if the tail number is 158xxx or higher, it's a new build A-6E.

    157xxx and earlier began life as Alpha models. And almost certainly, by the late 1970's, any of these airframes (save the tankers and the electronic warfare conversions) still in fleet service had been upgraded to Echo status.

    Regarding the nose radomes, Aircraft Profile no. 252, by Kurt Miska, indicates the change from black to white began with BuNo 155628 - the 359th A-6A. Earlier aircraft were re-fitted at overhaul.

    The same source also mentions the adoption of the "heavier nose wheel" (of the EA-6B) beginning with 154170. I can't tell the difference from looking at photos, however.

    One more some point during A-6A production raised plates (belly armor?) started to appear on the engine access panels. I can't find any details about when this took place and whether early aircraft received the upgrade.

    Thanks again Tommy for another interesting post.


    Richard Brumm

  2. Hi, can anyone provide help with the differences between the 'early' and later A-6 air refueling probes please? Cheers!