AWACS: NATO’s 'Eye In The Sky'

  • Last updated: 04 Jul. 2016 14:34

NATO operates a fleet of Boeing E-3A 'Sentry' Airborne Warning & Control System (AWACS) aircraft, which provide the Alliance with an immediately available airborne command and control (C2), air and maritime surveillance and battle-space management capability. NATO Air Base (NAB) Geilenkirchen, Germany, is home to 16 AWACS aircraft.


  • NATO operates a fleet of Boeing E-3A 'Sentry' Airborne Warning & Control System (AWACS) aircraft equipped with long-range radar and passive sensors capable of detecting air and surface contacts over large distances.
  • The NATO Airborne Early Warning and Control Force (NAEW&C Force) is one of the few military assets that is actually owned and operated by NATO.
  • It conducts a wide range of missions such as air policing, support to counter-terrorism, evacuation operations, embargo, initial entry and crisis response.
  • Under normal circumstances, the aircraft operates for about eight hours, at 30,000 feet (9,150 metres) and covers a surveillance area of more than 120,000 square miles (310,798 square kilometres).
  • AWACS played an important role in NATO operations such as in the United States after 9/11, in Libya and in Afghanistan. It also provided air support to secure NATO summits or international sporting events such as the 2004 Summer Olympics Games and the 2006 World Cup Football Championship.
  • More recently, the fleet is involved in the reassurance measures following the Russia-Ukraine crisis, and in the tailored assurance measures for Turkey against the background of the Syrian crisis.

More background information

  • Role and responsibilities

    The NE-3A is a modified Boeing 707 equipped with long-range radar and passive sensors capable of detecting air and surface contacts over large distances. Information collected by AWACS can be transmitted directly from the aircraft to other users on land, at sea or in the air.

    The NATO Airborne Early Warning and Control Force (NAEW&C Force) is the Alliance’s largest collaborative venture and is an example of what NATO member countries can achieve by pooling resources and working together in a truly multinational environment.

    The NAEW&C Force performs a unique and valuable role for the Alliance by conducting a wide range of missions such as air policing, support to counter-terrorism, consequence management, non-combatant evacuation operations (NEO), embargo, initial entry, crisis response and demonstrative force operations.

    In recent years, the Force has been deployed on increasingly complex and demanding tactical missions, including:

    • support to maritime operations;
    • close air support (CAS);
    • airspace management;
    • combat search and rescue (CSAR);
    • disaster relief; and
    • counter-piracy.

    Critical asset for crisis management

    Since it commenced flight operations in 1982, the NAEW&C Force has proven to be a key asset in crisis-management and peace-support operations.

    Following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, aircraft from the NATO E-3A Component (NAB Geilenkirchen) deployed to eastern Turkey to help reinforce NATO’s southern flank during the war. Operation Anchor Guard included monitoring air and sea traffic in the eastern Mediterranean and providing airborne surveillance along the Iraqi-Turkish border. The mission was conducted from August 1990 to March 1991.

    For most of the 1990s, aircraft from both the NATO and United Kingdom's AEW&C fleets operated extensively in the Balkans, supporting United Nations resolutions and Alliance missions in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo during Operations Deliberate Force and Allied Force. AWACS aircraft from the French Air Force (Armée de l'air) and the US Air Force also helped achieve the objectives of these missions.

    In early 2001, the Force also supported NATO’s defensive deployment to south-eastern Turkey during Operation Display Deterrence.

    In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States in 2001, NATO E-3A aircraft were deployed to the mainland US to help defend North America against further attacks during Operation Eagle Assist. This represented the first time in Alliance history that NATO assets were deployed in support of the defence of one of its member nations.

    Since 2007, the NAEW&C Force has been used successfully in support of NATO's counter-terrorism activities in the Mediterranean Sea during Operation Active Endeavour.

    Since January 2011, aircraft from NAB Geilenkirchen have been deploying to Afghanistan to support the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) by providing air surveillance coverage as part of Operation Afghan Assist. In Afghanistan AWACS aircraft conducted air surveillance, tactical battle management functions such as support and control of friendly aircraft involved in close air support, battlefield air interdiction, combat search and rescue, reconnaissance, and tactical air transport.

    During Operation Unified Protector, the NAEW&C Force also performed the crucial function of commanding and controlling all Alliance air assets operating over Libya. This included the issuing of real-time tactical orders and taskings to NATO fighter aircraft, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, air-to-air refuellers or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). NATO E-3A aircraft also supported Allied ships and submarines enforcing the maritime arms embargo against Libya by providing an aerial maritime surveillance capability.

    On 25 September 2014, the last NATO AWACS aircraft returned to its home base in Geilenkirchen from Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan. NATO had decided that AWACS aircraft would not be required for the Resolute Support Mission  standing up on 1 January 2015 as the new mission focused on training, advising and assisting Afghan forces. 

    On 1 December 2015, NATO foreign ministers took steps to further the Alliance’s adaptation to security challenges from the south and agreed on tailored assurance measures for Turkey that are meant to contribute to de-escalation in the region. This support will include AWACS surveillance flights; increased naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean; Standing Naval Forces port calls; participation in exercises; enhanced air policing; and maritime patrol aircraft flights.

    On 11 February 2016, NATO defence ministers decided in principle that NATO AWACS surveillance planes will backfill national AWACS capabilities in support of the international coalition to counter ISIL. This  decision was made in response to request from the United States. NATO military planners are currently working out the details.

    Also on 11 February 2016, a significant milestone was reached when a NATO AWACS aircraft completed the 1,000th mission in support of NATO reassurance measures. These measures are a series of land, sea and air activities in, on and around the territory of NATO Allies in Central and Eastern Europe, designed to reassure their populations and deter potential aggression. They are taken in response to Russia’s aggressive actions to NATO’s east.

    In April 2016, the Conference of National Armaments Directors (CNAD) provided direction and guidance to NATO’s Alliance Future Surveillance and Control (AFSC) project group regarding how NATO should step into the AFSC concept stage for this potential follow-on to the AWACS capability.

    As it stands, NATO’s E-3 AWACS fleet is expected to retire around 2025. In July 2016, Allies agreed to continue modernising NATO AWACS to extend the life of the E-3 fleet until 2035, after which additional lifetime extensions are no longer practical. The Alliance Future Surveillance and Control (AFSC) initiative has been established by NATO to investigate possibilities for a follow-on to the E-3 AWACS fleet, with a view to avoiding a potential capability gap in 2035. Based on high-level military requirements, Allies decided to collectively start in 2017 the next stage of defining options for future NATO surveillance and control capabilities.

    Also in July 2016, Allies agreed in principle to enhance the Alliance’s contribution to the efforts of the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL by providing direct NATO AWACS support to increase the coalition’s situational awareness.

    Protecting NATO populations

    As a consequence of the 9/11 attacks, NATO governments requested the air surveillance and control capability offered by the NAEW&C Force to assist with security for major public occasions.

    These high-visibility events have included the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Greece, the 2006 World Cup Football Championship in Germany, the 2012 European Football Championship in Poland as well as important meetings held by other international organisations such as the 2010 Nobel Prize award ceremony in Sweden , the 2013 Dutch royal handover in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague, the Netherlands.

    Further, the NAEW&C fleets have consistently provided support to NATO summit meetings.

  • Working Mechanism

    Multinational cooperation is the key characteristic of the NAEW&C Programme Management Organisation (NAPMO). Currently, the 16 full NAPMO nations are: Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Turkey and the United States.

    The United Kingdom exercises limited participation as a NAPMO member, but its fleet of E-3D aircraft is an integral part of the NAEW&C Force. France has an observer role and maintains continual coordination to ensure its E-3F aircraft remain interoperable with the other E-3 fleets. France also often assists in coordinated operations with the NAEW&C Force.

    The NAEW&C Force Headquarters is co-located with NAB Geilenkirchen and exercises operational control over the Force, consisting of two operational units:

    • the E-3A Component based at NAB Geilenkirchen, which operates the 16 NATO-owned NE-3A aircraft (the squadrons are manned by integrated international crews from 15 nations); and
    • the E-3D Component based at Royal Air Force (RAF) Waddington, United Kingdom, which operates its six Boeing E-3D aircraft (the component is manned by RAF personnel only).

    The Force also maintains three forward-operating bases (FOBs) at Konya in Turkey, Aktion in Greece, Trapani in Italy, and a forward-operating location (FOL) at Ørland, Norway.

    The AWACS programme, including execution of modernisation projects, is managed on a day-to-day basis by the NAEW&C Programme Management Agency (NAPMA), which is located in Brunssum, the Netherlands. The agency is staffed by military officers seconded to the agency and by civilian officials from the nations participating in the programme.  In 2011, the NAPMA General Manager was assigned by the NAPMO nations as the Technical Airworthiness Authority (TAA) for the NE-3A fleet.  Supported by a dedicated engineering office, the TAA shares responsibilities for airworthiness certification, together with the NAEW&C Force Commander, who is responsible operations and support of the fleet. 

    How the NAEW&C Force works

    All AWACS aircraft undergo continuous modifications for modernisation and for operations and support. An NE-3A aircraft modified under the NATO Mid-Term Programme has a standard crew of 16, while the original E-3D requires a standard crew of 18. Whatever the variant, the flight and mission crews are highly-trained men and women whose expertise covers all areas of flight operations, including battle space management, weapons control, surveillance control, data link management and the technical aspects of communications, data systems and mission radar.

    Under normal circumstances, the aircraft can operate for about eight hours (and longer with air-to-air refuelling) at 30,000 feet (9,150 metres).

    The active surveillance sensors are located in the radar dome (“rotodome”), which makes the NE-3A such a uniquely recognisable aircraft. This structure rotates once every ten seconds and provides the NE-3A with 360-degree radar coverage that can detect aircraft out to a distance of more than 215 nautical miles (400 kilometres).

    One aircraft flying at 30,000 feet has a surveillance area coverage of more than 120,000 square miles and three aircraft operating in overlapping, coordinated orbits can provide unbroken radar coverage of the whole of Central Europe.

    The aircraft is able to track and identify potentially hostile aircraft operating at low altitudes, as well as provide fighter control of Allied aircraft. It can simultaneously track and identify maritime contacts, and provide coordination support to Allied surface forces.

  • AWACS programme overview

    During the 1960s, it became clear that military aircraft could no longer fly high enough to avoid surface-to-air missiles. To survive in an increasingly lethal air defence environment, aircraft were forced down to levels little higher than tree-top. By the 1970s, the requirement to detect high-speed combat aircraft with low-level penetration capability made it necessary to augment NATO’s system of ground-based radars with new means.

    The NATO military authorities determined that an Airborne Early Warning (AEW) capability would provide the key to meeting the challenge. The operational requirement for the NATO AEW system stressed the need to detect small, high-speed intruder aircraft at long range. The need to detect maritime surface targets (such as ships and boats) was also specified because of the geographical regions where the AEW aircraft would have to operate. The inherent mobility and flexibility of the system, especially for control function, were also foreseen by NATO planners as providing air, maritime, and land force commanders with an enhanced command and control (C2) capability. The creation of a NATO AEW Force was therefore designed to make a significant contribution to the Alliance’s deterrent posture.

    In December 1978, the NATO Defence Planning Committee approved the joint acquisition of 18 aircraft based on the US Air Force (USAF) Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS), to be operated as an Alliance-owned Airborne Early Warning System. In addition to the delivery of the 18 E-3A aircraft between February 1982 and May 1985, the NAEW&C programme included the upgrade of 40 NATO Air Defence Ground Environment (NADGE) sites and the establishment of a main operating base (MOB) at Geilenkirchen, Germany, along with three FOBs and an FOL.

  • Transformation

    Originally designed as an elevated radar platform, the NATO E-3A has constantly evolved to address the realities of geopolitical change and NATO’s new mission over the last 30 years. In emphasising the control aspect of the AEW&C, the NE-3A has become an essential part of air battle management and has continued to remain operationally relevant through successive modernisation programmes involving state-of-the-art engineering and manufacturing developments. From the Initial NAEW&C Acquisition Programme through the Near-Term Programme and on through the Mid-Term Programme, the NAPMO nations have collectively spent/committed, for acquisition and follow-on support, in excess of US$6.8 billion – prohibitively expensive for any single country, but realisable through the collective contribution of the NAPMO nations.

    Today, NATO is moving forward with a new and improved method of planning and conducting operations. To support the dynamic NATO transformation process, NAPMO is committed to adopt new business approaches and enter into cooperative programmes.  The purpose is to expedite the fielding of operational capabilities in response to emerging requirements at a cost that takes into consideration today’s economic realities. In that sense, efforts are underway for the next phase of NAEW&C enhancements, which will allow the Force to continue fulfilling its operational mandate well into the future.

    To be completed by 2018, the Follow-on Upgrade Programme (FUP)  primarily aims to enhance the identification system (Mode 5/Enhanced Mode S) and replace the analogue cockpit with modern, digital technology (known as a “glass” cockpit). Communication systems which use Internet Protocol (IP) are also being developed and fielded to support text communications with other command and control (C2) assets.

    NATO AWACS will continue to be modernised and extended in service until 2035.  By 2035, the Alliance needs to have a follow-on capability to the E-3 AWACS.  Based on high-level military requirements, Allies decided in July 2016 to collectively start the process of defining options for future NATO surveillance and control capabilities.