The U.S. Navy is planning to relocate a specialized attack squadron currently stationed on the eastern seaboard, leaving Washington D.C. and other large American cities vulnerable to electronic warfare threats posed by China, Russia, Iran, and other rogue nations, sources said.
The Navy’s premier reserve electronic attack squadron, known as VAQ-209, has been ordered by the Pentagon to move from Joint Base Andrews in Maryland to Whidbey Island in Washington State, according to documents obtained by the Free Beacon.
The move is scheduled to take place on July 31, 2013. A Navy official confirmed that the memo was sent to lawmakers but would not comment further.
Defense insiders are concerned that the relocation of this critical defense unit would leave the East Coast open to electronic warfare attacks. Squadrons such as VAQ-209 specialize in jamming and destroying the communications capabilities of encroaching enemy fighters.
"We’re going to leave the entire east coast unprotected from electronic attack, a major vulnerability in the most critical area of this country," one former intelligence officer for the squadron told the Free Beacon. "All of it is now unprotected."
There is no other squadron like VAQ-209 posted on the East Coast, the source said.
"The squadron is the only one of its kind in the U.S. military—a melting pot of the Navy's top aviators and electronic countermeasure officers with the Capitol-Beltway region's wealth of civilian knowledge and expertise in the ever-growing critical national security arena that is electronic warfare," said the intelligence officer.
"This squadron is the Navy's premier reserve electronic attack [EA] squadron, which draws in reserve experts who literally work on developing the next generation jammers and develop the jamming techniques themselves," the source added. "The move means the biggest ‘brain drain’ the U.S. military has ever seen in one of the most vital areas of our national defense."
The Navy maintains that moving the unit to Washington would "realize significant cost savings," according to the memo issued to Congress.
However, lawmakers argue that the squadron should remain near Washington, D.C., where it employs many highly trained reservists and civilians.
The Navy’s order to relocate the squadron was made outside of the formal Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC) process, which reviews such moves.
One senior Senate aide with knowledge of the process questioned why the Navy did not follow normal protocol in its announcement.
"If the Navy truly believes this is a cost-saving measure—despite all the obvious national security threats—then let them make that case during the next BRAC," the Senate aide said.
"But when you suddenly say, ‘We need to move a squadron and while we don't have any documentation to back up our claims that it saves money, you should just take our word for it,’ all kinds of alarm bells start going off in Congress," said the source, who criticized senior Defense Department officials for not stepping in to prevent "a boneheaded move."
The Pentagon has not yet provided to lawmakers an official analysis to show potential costs and risks associated with the move, according to the aide.
The fate of VAQ-209 first got attention on Capitol Hill in 2011 when a delegation of senators petitioned the Pentagon to keep the squadron stationed at Andrew’s Air Force Base.
"VAQ-209 draw upon the rich civilian talent pool in the Capitol Beltway region to bring critical skills, experiences and expertise into the Navy Reserve," argued Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D., Md.), Mark Kirk (R., Ill.), and Ben Cardin (D., Md.) in a Sept. 2011 letter sent to the Pentagon.
The senators expressed concern that the Navy could lose its edge in an area of warfare known as Airborne Electronic Attack (AEA).
"We do not want to see our Navy lose access to this unparalleled AEA talent pool," the letter states. "Keeping VAQ-209 in its current home is the only sustainable model that allows the Reserves to continue to support vital Defense Department AEWA requirements."
VAQ-209 is responsible for testing emerging electronic warfare technologies and employs the top personnel in this field. It shares new technology and combat practices with the wider military.
"One of their biggest contributions in the last 10-15 years is that they developed how to use electronic attacks to stop IEDs," or improvised implosive devises, one defense expert told the Free Beacon on background.
The squadron has deployed into Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan.