NATO’s airborne surveillance: Eyes in the sky
Effective air defence is a NATO priority. The Alliance’s fleet of Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aeroplanes, play a key role in air defence across the Euro-Atlantic region.
While the recent problems in Libya have increased the need for airborne surveillance over the Mediterranean ocean, NATO has been routinely operating AWACS aircraft in the region as part of its long-standing counter-terrorist Operation Active Endeavour (OAE) since 2007.
“We have extended surveillance in the Mediterranean,” says Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO Secretary General on March 9. “Having our AWACS monitoring the situation [in Libya] 24/7, will provide us with a better picture of what is going on and of course this improved picture is a prerequisite for evaluating the situation accurately.”
The fleet of Boeing E-3A ‘Sentry’ AWACS aircraft is one of the few military assets owned by the Alliance itself. The planes, each the size of a commercial Boeing-707 with an added radar dome on top, began service in 1982 and are an essential component of the largest collaborative project ever undertaken by Allies.
Some 18 nations have pooled resources into the project: Belgium, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States.
One E-3A aircraft flying at 30,000 ft (9,150 m) can provide surveillance coverage of approximately 120,463 square miles (312,000 square kilometres) and can stay in the air for 10 hours without refuelling. Three aircraft operating in overlapping, coordinated orbits can provide unbroken radar coverage of the whole of Central Europe.
The AWACS capability provides an enhanced maritime and air surveillance picture, says E-3A Component Commander Brigadier General Burkhard Pototsky. “This capability is decisive for achieving a permanent high level of situational awareness. For all decision makers in NATO it is essential to have a high level of situational awareness. With our E-3A capabilities we make a fundamental contribution to this,” he adds.
Despite an ever-changing security environment, the AWACS fleet remains relevant through modernisation programmes ensuring it is a powerful tool for air defence. In October 2010 the last of nine AWACS modernization projects was completed which included improved communication and navigations systems.