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Navy Unit Keeps Tabs On Iraq Formerly Top-Secret Air Unit Based At Whidbey Island

Wed., Feb. 18, 1998

With the possibility growing of military action against Saddam Hussein, the U.S. Navy is taking some of the wraps off a once-top-secret air squadron that’s been used to snoop on Iraq.

Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron 1 - known in the Navy as VQ-1 - operates six sophisticated intelligence-gathering aircraft from Whidbey Island Naval Air Station here. The spy planes and their crews rotate into the Persian Gulf region and other hot spots to monitor radar, radio and other electronic emissions.

The squadron has maintained an airborne listening post against Iraq since before the 1991 Persian Gulf War. At least one of its planes will be aloft and listening for Iraqi signals if the United States attacks that nation.

Although the 47-year-old squadron is emerging from the shadows, the Navy still won’t say much about what it listens for. That’s classified, said Cmdr. Kevin Ketchmark, the unit’s commander.

“Our job is to provide indications and warnings,” Ketchmark said.

In a crisis, the squadron’s EP-3E Aries II aircraft go aloft to detect threats, with the crews usually talking directly to pilots, squadron leaders or carrier commanders about what they hear. At other times, information is gathered for the nation’s intelligence agencies, Ketchmark said.

The squadron moved to Whidbey Island from Guam in 1995. It has 540 people, including flight crews, technicians and administrative staff. Three of its planes are always deployed in the Persian Gulf, Japan or other locations in the Pacific, and two usually are undergoing maintenance.

A similar squadron, VQ-2, is based in Spain and covers the Atlantic.

The aircraft are modified Lockheed P-3 Orions. The four-engine, land-based planes are more commonly used for hunting submarines.

The EP-3Es are packed with consoles, computer terminals and recording equipment. They have a distinctive radar dome mounted on the belly near the nose, and about 50 other antennae are mounted on the fuselage or protrude from the wings.

Ketchmark said secrecy about the squadron is lifting partly because of the end of the Cold War and partly because today’s smaller military focuses more attention on intelligence gathering.

Ketchmark also wants to be sure his squadron is acknowledged for its role in the Persian Gulf.

“I want to make sure that folks everywhere know that VQ-1 and our people are part of what’s going on over there,” he said.

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