AWACS: NATO’s 'eyes in the sky'

  • Last updated: 24 Jan. 2019 10:53

NATO operates a fleet of Boeing E-3A Airborne Warning & Control System (AWACS) aircraft, with their distinctive radar domes mounted on the fuselage, which provide the Alliance with air surveillance, command and control, battle space management and communications. NATO Air Base (NAB) Geilenkirchen, Germany, is home to 14 AWACS aircraft.



  • NATO operates a fleet of Boeing E-3A 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).
  • 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.
  • NATO AWACS aircraft are also providing surveillance and situational awareness to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, thereby making the skies safer.
  • AWACS surveillance aircraft 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.

More background information

  • Role and capabilities

    The NATO E-3A (or AWACS) 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 conducts 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.

    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.

    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 AWACS such a uniquely recognisable aircraft. This structure rotates once every 10 seconds and provides the AWACS aircraft 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 (310,798 square kilometres) and three aircraft operating in overlapping, coordinated orbits can provide unbroken radar coverage of the whole of Central Europe.

  • Operational contributions

    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 (NATO Air Base (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.

    From 2007 until 2016, the NAEW&C Force was used successfully in support of NATO's counter-terrorism activities in the Mediterranean Sea during Operation Active Endeavour.

    During Operation Unified Protector in 2011, 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).  AWACS aircraft also supported Allied ships and submarines enforcing the maritime arms embargo against Libya by providing an aerial maritime surveillance capability.

    From 2011 until 2014, aircraft from NAB Geilenkirchen were deployed 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.

    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 stood up on 1 January 2015 as the new mission focused on training, advising and assisting Afghan forces.

    Assuring Allies

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

    In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States in 2001,  AWACS 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.

    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 includes 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, a significant milestone was reached when 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.

    Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS

    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 a request from the United States.

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

    The first NATO AWACS flight in support of the Coal