AWACS: NATO’s 'eyes in the sky'
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 itself (the vast majority of military assets deployed under the NATO banner are national capabilities of individual member countries).
- It conducts a wide range of missions from peacetime air policing, support to counter-terrorism, evacuation operations, embargo, initial entry and crisis response to the full spectrum of wartime missions.
- Under normal circumstances, the aircraft operates for about eight and a half 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 aircraft is capable of flying longer operations due to its air-to-air refuelling capability.
- The fleet is currently involved in assurance measures that followed Russia’s illegal and illegitimate annexation of Crimea in 2014, as well as in tailored assurance measures to Turkey. In addition, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the fleet is currently monitoring NATO airspace in order to assure and protect Allies.
- 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 previous NATO operations such as in the United States after 9/11, in Libya and in Afghanistan. It also provides air surveillance support to secure the skies over NATO summits or other important international events that take place across the Alliance.
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 in near real time.
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 detect, track, identify and report 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 fly at a maximum range of 9,250 kilometres or for about eight and a half hours (and longer with air-to-air refuelling) at 9,150 metres (30,000 feet).
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, or about the size of Poland) and three aircraft operating in overlapping, coordinated orbits can provide unbroken radar coverage of the whole of Central Europe.
The aircraft is 46.6 metres long, 4.5 metres wide, has a 44.43-metre wingspan and is powered by four TF-33-PW110A turbojet engines. The rotodome has a diameter of 9.1 metre. A flight crew of three and mission crew of 12, which can be tailored to the assigned mission, operate the aircraft.
In 2019, the cockpit was modernised with a glass cockpit designed to meet evolving European air traffic management requirements. The NATO E-3A is currently undergoing a large-scale mission and audio system modernisation effort called the Final Lifetime Extension Programme, which will ensure the aircraft’s operational viability through 2035.
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
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 combat aircraft, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, air-to-air refuelling aircraft, and 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 and 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 successor mission focused on training, advising and assisting Afghan forces.
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, 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 countries.
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.
NATO AWACS aircraft have been flying in support of NATO assurance measures since 2014. 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, including its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
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 Coalition fighting ISIL took place on 20 October 2016. Operating from Konya Air Base in Turkey, the aircraft support the Coalition’s overall air picture by providing surveillance and situational awareness, thereby making the skies safer.
NATO’s AWACS aircraft do not coordinate Coalition air strikes or provide command and control for fighter aircraft. AWACS aircraft only fly in international airspace or over Turkey. AWACS can detect aircraft hundreds of kilometres away, so they can monitor airspace in Iraq and Syria from inside Turkey. This is an important contribution to the counter-ISIL effort and a clear signal of NATO’s determination to help fight terrorism.
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 2015 G7 summit in Germany, the 2016 World Youth Day in Poland and the 2019 EU summit in Romania.
Further, the NAEW&C fleets have consistently provided support to NATO summit meetings, including the NATO 70th anniversary meeting in London in 2019.
Multinational cooperation is the key characteristic of the NAEW&C Programme Management Organisation (NAPMO). Currently, the 16 full NAPMO member countries are: Belgium, Czechia, 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 located at 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 14 NATO-owned NATO E-3A aircraft (the squadrons are manned by integrated international crews from 19 countries ); and
- the E-3D Component based at Royal Air Force (RAF) Waddington, United Kingdom, which operates its three Boeing E-3D aircraft (the component is manned by RAF personnel only). The RAF is currently in the process of retiring its fleet of E-3Ds and will replace them with the more modern E-7 AEW&C aircraft.
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 member countries as the Technical Airworthiness Authority (TAA) for the NATO E-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 for operations and support of the fleet and serves as the Operational Airworthiness Authority.
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 and evolution
Originally designed as an elevated radar platform, the AWACS aircraft 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 AWACS aircraft 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 to the Final Lifetime Extension, the NAPMO countries have collectively spent/committed approximately USD 13 billion – prohibitively expensive for any single country, but realisable through the collective contribution of the NAPMO countries.
All AWACS aircraft undergo continuous modifications for modernisation and for operations and support. The last round of modernisation, known as the Follow-on Upgrade Programme (FUP), enhanced the systems to support the situational awareness of cooperating units (Mode 5/Enhanced Mode S), while replacing the analogue cockpit with modern, digital technology (known as a “glass” cockpit). In December 2018, the last upgraded aircraft was delivered to NATO by the prime contractor, ensuring the fleet’s compliance with current and foreseen air traffic management requirements. 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’s AWACS fleet is currently embarking upon a final modernisation effort to extend its service life to 2035. Valued at USD 1 billion and funded by the 16 Allies participating in the AWACS programme, this effort will provide AWACS with sophisticated new communications and networking capabilities, including upgrades to the NE-3A’s data link and voice communications capabilities, and enhanced Wide-Band Beyond Line-of-Sight airborne networking capability. The modernisation contract has been awarded to Boeing as prime contractor with contributions from other participating Allies’ industries.
NATO’s E-3 AWACS fleet is predicted to retire soon after 2035. At the Warsaw Summit in 2016, Allies declared that “by 2035, the Alliance needs to have a follow-on capability to the E-3 AWACS. Based on high-level military requirements, we have decided to collectively start the process of defining options for future NATO surveillance and control capabilities.” This effort has since been carried forward as the Alliance Future Surveillance and Control (AFSC) initiative.
In February 2017, NATO defence ministers agreed to embark upon the AFSC Concept Stage, comprised of a series of studies to evaluate new technologies and explore a system-of-systems approach, including potential combinations of air, ground, space or unmanned systems networked together to collect and share information. These studies will eventually help to inform decisions by NATO, individual Allies or multinational groups to acquire new systems in the future. All NATO Allies currently cooperate in the planning and resourcing of AFSC.
In December 2018, the North Atlantic Council declared the first phase of the AFSC Concept Stage complete on schedule and on budget, and agreed to advance into the second phase. In the second phase currently under way, NATO taps into the expertise of Alliance industries. In 2020, NATO received six high-level concept proposals developed by six transatlantic firms and consortia, comprising expertise from both defence and non-defence sectors. The concepts encompassed innovative ideas to fulfil the AWACS missions in unique and disruptive ways. Allied leaders selected the best ideas from the six proposals and committed to continue working with industry to develop and refine these options.
A new competition was launched in 2021 for a second round of more in-depth industry advice, valued at up to Euro 90 million. NATO is ensuring that it remains relevant and technologically adept, while also benefitting from the widest range of innovative industry developments.