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E-3 Sentry (AWACS)

The E-3 Sentry is an airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft that provides all-weather surveillance, command, control and communications needed by commanders of U.S. and NATO air defense forces. As proven in Desert Storm and Operation Allied Force, it is the premier air battle command and control aircraft in the world today.

The E-3 Sentry is a modified Boeing 707/320 commercial airframe with a rotating radar dome. The dome is 30 feet (9.1 meters) in diameter, six feet (1.8 meters) thick, and is held 11 feet (3.3 meters) above the fuselage by two struts. It contains the million-watt, Doppler Radar System that permits surveillance from the Earth's surface up into the stratosphere, over land or water. The radar (an AN/APY-1 or AN/APY-2) has a range of more than 200 miles (320 kilometers) for low-flying targets and farther for aerospace vehicles flying at medium to high altitudes. The radar combined with an identification friend or foe subsystem can look down to detect, identify and track enemy and friendly low-flying aircraft by eliminating ground clutter returns that confuse other radar systems.

The radar and computer subsystems on the E-3 Sentry can gather and present broad and detailed battlefield information. Data is collected as events occur. This includes position and tracking information on enemy aircraft and ships, and location and status of friendly aircraft and naval vessels. The information can be sent to major command and control centers in rear areas or aboard ships. In time of crisis, this data can be forwarded to the National Command Authorities in the United States. Other major subsystems in the E-3 are navigation, communications and computers (data processing). Consoles display computer-processed data in graphic and tabular format on video screens. Console operators perform surveillance, identification, weapons control, battle management and communications functions.

In support of air-to-ground operations, the Sentry can provide direct information needed for interdiction, reconnaissance, airlift and close-air support for friendly ground forces. It can also provide information for commanders of air operations to gain and maintain control of the air battle. As an air defense system, E-3s can detect, identify and track airborne enemy forces far from the boundaries of the United States or NATO countries. It can direct fighter-interceptor aircraft to these enemy targets. The aircraft can be used as a surveillance asset in support of other government agencies during counter drug operations. US Customs Service officers may fly aboard the E-3 Sentry on precoordinated missions to detect smuggling activities.

Experience has proven that the E-3 Sentry can respond quickly and effectively to a crisis and support worldwide military deployment operations. It is a jam-resistant system that has performed missions while experiencing heavy electronic countermeasures. With its mobility as an airborne warning and control system, the Sentry has an excellent chance of surviving in war. Among other things, the flight path can quickly be changed according to mission and survival requirements. The E-3 can fly a mission profile for more than 8 hours without refueling. Its range and on-station time can be increased through inflight refueling.

The AWACS program began on 22 December 1965 with the establishment of an AWACS System Program Office by Air Force Systems Command. Two years later, on 15 March 1967, AFSC transferred the authority for an AWACS SPO to its Electronic Systems Division at Hanscom AFB, and the modern AWACS concept was born. ESD was chosen to manage the AWACS because there had been a continuing migration of command, control and communications systems from ground to airborne platforms at the division which greatly broadened its scope and mission. AWACS was actually designed in the 1970's and was originally conceived as a system to aid European air defenses against incoming Russian bombers. At that time, under the control of ESC, AWACS was a high-priority acquisition program with its own streamlined procurement rules, under the direction of the Secretary of Defense.

The first major milestone for the system occurred in July 1970 when The Boeing Co., Seattle, Wash., was selected as the prime contractor after a grueling run-off with McDonnell-Douglas and Lockheed, pitting its 707 against the Lockheed EC-121 and the McDonnell-Douglas DC-8. Boeing flew the first test airframe in February, 1972 and subsequently selected Westinghouse Electric Corp. as the radar system contractor in September of that year. In early 1973 the Air Force authorized full-scale development of the E-3.

Engineering, test and evaluation began on the first E-3 Sentry in October 1975. In March 1977 the 552nd Airborne Warning and Control Wing (now 552nd Air Control Wing, Tinker Air Force Base, Okla.), received the first E-3s where they are still assigned. Pacific Air Forces has four E-3 Sentries assigned to the 961st Airborne Air Control Squadron (AACS), Kadena Air Base, Japan, and the 962nd AACS, Elmendorf AFB, Alaska. NATO has acquired 18 of the aircraft and support equipment. The first E-3 was delivered to NATO in January 1982. The United Kingdom has seven E-3s and France has four.

The AWACS Test System-3 (TS-3) test aircraft, a militarized 707, has been flying missions since the 1970s. TS-3 is maintained and operated in Seattle by Boeing for the US Air Force and has logged more than 1,000 flights and 6,800 flight hours testing AWACS enhancements such as radar improvements, new sensors, computers and displays.

Tinker AFB serves as the E-3 main operating base. Besides a full compliment of flightline support, Tinker AFB provides full back-shop support functions and the capability to access depot facilities. Kadena AB, Japan and Elmendorf AFB, Alaska are also permanent operating locations with assigned E-3s and flightline support, but limited back-shop capabilities. The E-3 is constantly deployed all over the world. Support at deployed locations ranges from full flightline support capabilities to bare base operations. However, all have limited back-shop support. A flightline maintenance support contingent is deployed with the aircraft. Back-shop support is normally not deployed.

In March 1996, the Air Force activated an AWACS Reserve Associate Program unit which will perform duties on active-duty aircraft. The unit is assigned to the 507th Operations Group at Tinker.

In December 1978, the NATO Defence Planning Committee decided to acquire a NATO owned Airborne Early Warning air defence capability to provide air surveillance and command and control for all NATO commands. In October 1980, the NATO Airborne Early Warning Force Command was formed with its Headquarters co-located with SHAPE. In addition to the HQ, the Force comprises two operational components, the E-3A Component at Geilenkirchen NATO Air Base, GE, and the E-3D Component at Royal Air Force Waddington, UK; three Forward Operating Bases located in Turkey, Greece and Italy and a Forward Operating Location in Norway. The E-3A Component operates 18 E-3A Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) aircraft and 3 Boeing 707 Trainer/Cargo aircraft. The E-3D Component operates 6 E-3D AEW&C aircraft. The E-3A Component is funded by 12 nations (Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Turkey and the United States) and the NATO E-3A aircraft are manned by integrated, multinational crews from these countries, with the exception of Luxembourg. The E-3D Component represents the United Kingdom s contribution to the Force and its aircraft are manned by RAF personnel. The NAEWF is the largest commonly funded acquisition program undertaken by the Alliance and is the only NATO owned, multinational, operational force which is fully integrated into the command structure. Operational command of the Force is vested in, and collectively exercised by the MNCs through their executive agent, SACEUR, while the Force Commander exercises day-to-day Operational Control over the Force.

One E-3 was lost in an accident on 22 September 1995 at Elmendorf AFB, Alaska. All 24 crewmembers were killed in the accident. The USAF accident investigation report concluded that the accident was directly caused by the ingestion of Canada geese into No. 1 and No. 2 engines. The ingestion of the geese into the aircraft's engines caused a loss of thrust that rendered this aircraft incapable of controlled flight.

E-3 Sentry aircraft were among the first to deploy during Operation Desert Shield where they immediately established an around-the-clock radar screen to defend against Iraqi aggression. During Desert Storm, E-3s flew more than 400 missions and logged more than 5,000 hours of on-station time. They provided radar surveillance and control to more than 120,000 coalition sorties. In addition to providing senior leadership with time-critical information on the actions of enemy forces, E-3 controllers assisted in 38 of the 40 air-to-air kills recorded during the conflict. For the first time in the history of aerial warfare, an entire air war has been recorded. This was due to the data collection capability of the E-3 radar and computer subsystems.

In Operation Desert Storm the intensity of battle coupled with large forces using Information Age weaponry and communications created the most intense electronic battlefield ever witnessed. The E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) was an integral part of the battle serving as the "eye" that tracked all battle space aircraft and directed interceptions while safeguarding our forces from surprise enemy aerial attack. The overwhelming density of diverse electronic signals transmitted and received created such a congested environment that the E-3s' full mission capability was greatly hindered. This E-3 problem had to be quickly corrected and a dedicated software support team sprung into immediate action. The E-3 radar software was rapidly revised, flight tested, and on its way to deployed aircraft within 96 hours. This quick reaction, modification, and change-out during the heat of battle emphasizes the operational necessity for easily supportable software.

The 552nd Air Control Wing made significant changes to help improve combat capability following the friendly fire shootdown of two Army UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters over northern Iraq on 14 April 1994. Tragically, a complex series of errors and communication breakdowns led to Air Force F-15s-supported by an AWACS E-3 Sentry aircraft-destroying the helicopters and killing 26 people. AWACS personnel didn't receive helicopter flight schedules in Northern Iraq. An AWACS vectored a pair of F-15 Eagles to intercept what it thought were Iraqi MI-24 Hind helicoptors. The F-15s shot down the helicoptors, which turned ut to be Allied UH-60s. Within a few days, intense media scrutiny shoved the 552nd into a spotlight that placed blame on an organization that has received 14 Air Force Outstanding Unit Awards. Numerous reviews and investigations delivered positive changes for the 552nd ACW and the entire AWACS community. With members stretched from Turkey to Panama, the 552nd asked Air Combat Command to take a closer look at global demands put on AWACS aircraft and crews. Many of the crews deployed 200 days a year, which hindered training effectiveness, crew morale and retention. Soon after, Secretary of Defense William Perry ordered three mandates: Improve aircrew training; Reduce the TDY rate; and Increase the number of aircrews.

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Page last modified: 01-07-2021 17:55:21 ZULU