A Quarter Century of AWACS

March 1, 2002

The article in the April 13, 1974, New Republic was exceptionally negative. The mission of this latest USAF aircraft, it suggested, was phony, a mere pretext to keep tax dollars flowing to defense contractors. The system cost too much. Tests cast doubt on whether it would actually work. It was an obvious pouch of flab in a bloated defense budget.

The mocking title said it all: “AWACS: The Plane That Would Not Die.”

At least the title was accurate. The E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System certainly would not die-and for good reasons. Far from turning out to be an expensive boondoggle, the 707 with the huge rotating radar dome (“a mushroom with elephantiasis,” sneered TNR) has become a bedrock of US military power.

Twenty-five years ago, on March 24, 1977, Boeing delivered the first basic production version of the E-3 Sentry to Air Force officials at Tinker AFB, Okla. The ensuing quarter century has shown the AWACS to be indispensable, often the first system to go into action when a threat arises and the last to leave once operations cease.

The AWACS has turned out to be even more important than envisioned by its Air Force proponents. It was the first of a new class of systems that would give US forces a revolutionary edge in military capability. AWACS transcended its Cold War origin to help dominate the air wars over Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan, plus numerous other armed actions.

“I don’t think any of us knew, as the world changed and missions evolved, that it would have such a continuing important role in multiple contingencies,” said Col. Brian M. Waechter, AWACS system program director at Air Force Materiel Command’s Electronic Systems Center, Hanscom AFB, Mass.

The All-Seeing Eye

The E-3 has become the “eyes” and battle manager for virtually all Air Force combat operations. Its actual value can be measured in flying hours. The venerable B-52 bomber and KC-135 tanker are both nearly twice the age of the AWACS, in calendar years. Yet today’s B-52 and KC-135 airframes have logged fewer flight hours, on average, than AWACS airframes.

“This platform has been heavily used since its inception,” said Waechter.

The impetus to build a system such as AWACS came from the manner in which air forces learned to deal with electronic waves of radar in the years following World War II. Radar had been a revolutionary weapon in the struggle against Nazi Germany. Its ability to spot everything from an approaching bomber to the conning tower of a U-boat gave the Allies an edge in some of the most crucial battles of the war.

Yet one feature of radar is vulnerable to exploitation by opponents. Its beams travel only in straight lines. Thus aircraft that hug the ground can take advantage of the curvature of the Earth and penetrate close to ground transmitters before popping up to attack.

Fast forward to the 1960s. The miniaturization of electronics had reached a point at which Air Force officials came to believe that a single airframe could now transport a powerful search radar plus computers able to handle the difficult task of differentiating moving aircraft and ground clutter. The aircraft would also contain communication equipment sophisticated enough to give commanders a real-time view of the battlespace.

On Dec. 22, 1965, Air Force Systems Command set up an Airborne Warning and Control System Program Office, and the AWACS effort officially was born.

From the start, the Pentagon treated development of the system as a high-priority effort. For example, AWACS had its own streamlined procurement rules, and its management came under the direct supervision of the Secretary of Defense.

The first question to settle was what airframe to select. There was a battle between the McDonnell Douglas DC-8, Lockheed EC-121, and Boeing 707. In July 1970, after a tough flyoff, Boeing won the prize.

The first test airframe flew in February 1972. After some 500 hours of radar test flights, Boeing selected the Westinghouse radar system over competing equipment manufactured by Hughes.

On Jan. 26, 1973, USAF announced it had given approval to Boeing to proceed with full-scale development of AWACS aircraft.

In these early years the main mission of AWACS, as defined in official military requirement documents, was to provide aid in the air defense of North America. It was to be a sort of early warning radar in the sky, alerting North American Aerospace Defense Command to the approach of Soviet bombers if and when they ever flew over northern latitudes toward US and Canadian territory.

Nixon’s Second Look

By the early 1970s, however, the fast-flying Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile equipped with multiple nuclear warheads had surpassed Russia’s manned bomber as the most dangerous strategic threat. Defense against a bomber strike was still important, but the Nixon Administration in 1973 decided to take another look at the AWACS program and assess its continued relevance.

This second look at AWACS produced yet another mission for the system. Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger decided that AWACS needed to be enhanced so it could serve not only as a strategic early warning aircraft but also as an airborne command-and-control center for tactical air operations, particularly in Western Europe.

This was not a particularly difficult technical change, recalled retired Gen. Lawrence A. Skantze, who was deputy for the E-3A program at Hanscom in the key 1973­77 period. It meant changing the way in which some data were monitored and adding a few internal consoles. It increased the cost somewhat.

From a political point of view, however, the addition of a new mission generated many problems.

“It created a lot of turmoil,” said Skantze. “Some of the program’s opponents in Congress declared that we really didn’t have a mission.”

The AWACS program encountered strong opposition in the powerful House Armed Services Committee. A number of lawmakers on the panel saw the E-3 as a duplicative competitor to the Navy’s E-2 Hawkeye, a carrier-based airborne early warning aircraft. One vocal critic was Rep. Patricia A. Schroeder, the liberal Democrat from Colorado. In the Senate, the main adversary was Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton, the liberal Missouri Democrat.

One technical argument made by critics in the program’s early years was that the AWACS radar could be easily jammed. That would have made it ineffective in Western Europe, they argued, because the Soviets had powerful jamming equipment on their densely militarized side of the Iron Curtain.

Eventually Congress voted to establish a special review committee to investigate this claim and other AWACS questions. Legislative language also required the Secretary of Defense to certify that the system would work before it could proceed in development.

In the end this arrangement worked to the program’s advantage. The review committee concluded that the radar would in fact work, and on that basis Congress in early 1975 released the initial batch of long-lead money for the first six airplanes.

Skantze observed: “The committee was very helpful in saying that it did not see [jamming] as a showstopper.”

In March 1977, the first AWACS was formally delivered to Tactical Air Command’s 552nd Airborne Warning and Control Wing at Tinker.

Production of USAF’s aircraft continued until June 1984, when the last of 34 Air Force E-3s rolled off Boeing’s line. (A September 1995 crash in Alaska left USAF with only 32 operational aircraft today. One is assigned to Boeing for tests.)

Even at the program’s inception, other nations had a keen interest in buying AWACS’s capability. The NATO Alliance, France, Saudi Arabia, and United Kingdom all now fly 707­based AWACS aircraft, bringing the total worldwide fleet to 66. In addition, Japan purchased four 767­based AWACS models.

Back in 1977, Skantze and others estimated that AWACS would remain in service for some 20 or 30 years. Since then, that figure has doubled, with current plans calling for the aircraft to remain in service until perhaps 2035. AWACS’s continuing value is due to both its operational capabilities and its power as a symbol.

When the US deploys AWACS to a troubled region, it shows that the Air Force means business. At the same time, the system itself is not provocative, as it has no inherent offensive capability.

“The thing we didn’t perceive at first but which became apparent as time passed was the ability of the system to surveil airspace in great depth but not pose a threatening aspect,” said Skantze.

The basic E-3 aircraft is a militarized version of Boeing’s 707-320B. The most obvious modification is the large rotodome put on the back of the airplane. The dome is 30 feet in diameter, six feet thick, and sits on two struts that support the radar 14 feet above the fuselage.

Inside the dome are identification, friend or foe and data-link fighter-control antennas and the antenna of the powerful AWACS radar system. The radar has a range of more than 250 miles for low-flying targets. It can see medium- to high-altitude fliers at even greater distance.

Data are collected, processed, and displayed on onboard consoles for 13 to 19 mission specialists in real time. AWACS can forward the location and track of friendly and adversary systems to users ranging from the individual pilot in a fighter cockpit to the White House Situation Room–at the same time.

It can fly a mission profile for eight hours without refueling. In-flight refueling, plus the use of an onboard crew rest area, can extend missions greatly.

Coasting Toward Retirement

Though it is now 25 years old, the E-3 platform is not just coasting toward retirement. Intensive upgrades and modifications have taken advantage of modern technology to make the system more reliable and efficient. The Extend Sentry program, for instance, began in 1994. Its goal: Upgrade almost all aspects of the aircraft, from software to the airframe itself, to improve performance and reliability.

The AWACS Block 30/35 modification added more computer power, GPS integrated navigation, and more data links, among other things. Plans call for the Radar System Improvement Program to boost performance against low radar cross section targets, including cruise missiles, and other goals.

“The total complexity of this system … far exceeds things I’ve worked on before,” said Ed Froese, Boeing’s vice president for the AWACS program. “It’s an antenna farm.”

Since it entered US service, the E-3 has proved its worth time and again, carrying out its vital mission in conflicts from Grenada to Haiti, Kuwait, Iraq, the Balkans, and Afghanistan.

During Desert Storm in 1991, E-3s flew more than 400 missions and logged more than 5,000 hours of mission time. AWACS crews provided data used in more than 120,000 coalition sorties and played a major role in all but two of the coalition’s 40 air-to-air kills of the Gulf War.

The Leading Edge

The impressive performance of AWACS in the Gulf War led analysts to herald it as the exemplar of a whole new approach to fighting wars.

One of those analysts was William J. Perry, a former senior Pentagon official in the Carter Administration who later became Secretary of Defense in the Clinton Administration. Writing in Foreign Affairs in 1991, Perry said the US in Desert Storm had employed for the first time a new class of military systems that provided a revolutionary advantage in capability. AWACS, he said, was one of the most important of these new force multipliers, particularly when the aircraft operated in concert with the Joint STARS ground surveillance system.

“One AWACS aircraft can instantaneously survey the airspace over an area larger than Kuwait and detect and locate every aircraft flying in that area,” he wrote. “AWACS played a critical role in giving coalition aircraft a significant advantage over Iraqi fighters.”

Subsequent action in Operation Allied Force only confirmed this impression. A total of 27 E-3s took part in NATO operations against the Yugoslav air force, logging some 4,800 hours on 500 missions while contributing to the destruction of an estimated 85 percent of Belgrade’s most modern fighters.

Operations in the war against terrorism sparked by the events of last Sept. 11 have included a new AWACS first: the deployment of NATO’s AWACS aircraft in America. Beginning last October, five NATO E-3As and their multinational crews flew to Tinker and set up operations, thus freeing up US assets to deploy overseas. The NATO contingent felt right at home operating with 552nd Air Control Wing base personnel, as the units have trained together often and operated together in combat for Allied Force. (US officials recently asked for two additional NATO E-3 aircraft.)

What does the future hold for AWACS? A balancing act, if nothing else. The Air Force must keep enough E-3s on line for operational use, while also taking sustainment actions sufficient to keep the aging 707 platform viable for years to come and planning upgrades to take advantage of technological breakthroughs.

Currently, Mission Capable rates on AWACS run from 75 to 77 percent, against a goal of 85 percent. A few years ago, MC rates were somewhat lower, averaging around 71 percent.

“We’ve done a lot on the sustainment side to improve the Mission Capable rate over the last few years,” said Waechter of ESC at Hanscom.

Corrosion on the AWACS airframe is a major concern. In the works is a lower lobe refurbishment project, as yet unfunded, that would completely rework the area beneath the AWACS main deck with corrosion mitigation, replacement of wiring and air-conditioning, and other improvements.

The Air Force wants eventually to combine the functions of AWACS and Joint STARS on a single platform, most likely on a new satellite of some kind. But such capability is still years away. Until then, the E-3 AWACS, conceived in the 1960s, built with 1970s technology, combat proven in the 1990s, and undergoing updates with 21st century systems, will remain the pre-eminent radar and command-and-control aircraft in the force.

“People might think the [E-3] platform is in its sunset years,” said Waechter. “That’s not true at all.”

“I Dub Thee Sentry”

As time for delivery of the first E-3 AWACS approached in 1977, the question was what to name it. Gen. Robert J. Dixon, commander of Tactical Air Command, wanted to call it Sentry.

Securing the name, however, was the job of the developer, Air Force Systems Command. It was up to AFSC to run the bureaucratic and legal traps for approval. A host of other things, including an insurance company, were already named Sentry. The lawyers said the E-3 would have to be called something else.

Dixon, sometimes known as “The Alligator” for good reason, was not pleased. The AWACS remained unnamed.

On delivery day at Tinker AFB, Okla., the first airplane taxied up to the reviewing stand. The band played and the crowd cheered. The Alligator stepped to the microphone and announced, “I dub thee Sentry.”

And that was that.

Peter Grier, a Washington, D.C., editor for the Christian Science Monitor, is a longtime defense correspondent and regular contributor to Air Force Magazine. His most recent article, “Turkey Stands Forward,” appeared in the February 2002 issue.