NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and the President of Boeing International, Sir Michael Arthur, met at Melsbroek Airport in Brussels on Wednesday 27 November 2019 to mark a major investment in the Alliance’s fleet of AWACS surveillance aircraft. NATO’s 1 billion dollar contract with Boeing will modernise the AWACS fleet, ensuring they continue to support the Alliance’s missions to 2035.

“NATO AWACS have been our eyes in the sky, supporting our operations for decades, from patrolling American skies after 9/11, to our operations in Afghanistan, and as part of the Global Coalition against ISIS,” said the Secretary General. He welcomed the contract with Boeing, which will provide NATO’s 14 AWACS aircraft with sophisticated new communications and networking capabilities. 16 NATO Allies, on both sides of the Atlantic, are funding this modernisation, and companies from Europe and North America are working together to provide high-tech capabilities. “NATO AWACS is a symbol of trans-Atlantic excellence, in terms of technology and partnership between Boeing, NATO and Europe. This modernisation programme will ensure the aircraft continue to thrive,” noted Sir Michael Arthur.

The Secretary General underlined that NATO continues to adapt, and is already planning for the replacement of the AWACS in 2035. “NATO will work closely with industry. We will consider how technologies – like artificial intelligence, autonomous systems and big data – can help NATO keep its edge,” he said. The Secretary General added that NATO is an important platform, where Allies can join forces and invest in new capabilities for shared security. “We will continue to modernise and adapt our Alliance, both now and in the future,” he said.

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. The aircraft’s upgrades will include new communications and networking capabilities, such as enhancements to the aircraft’s data link and voice communications, as well as improvements to its wide-band beyond-line-of-sight airborne networking capability.

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).E-3

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.

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 14 NATO-owned NATO E-3A aircraft (the squadrons are manned by integrated international crews from 16 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 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.

Photo credits: NATO AEW&C Force E-3A Component

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