The Sandbox Sentries

Nov. 1, 2007

In May 2003, after the initial phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom, all Tinker Air Force Base E-3B Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft returned home to Oklahoma. These AWACS aircraft, pride of the 552nd Air Control Wing, had certainly been hard-used. They had just spent 13 straight years forward deployed in the Middle East.

According to Col. Lori J. Robinson, 552nd commander, the deployed crew members flew in support of operations Desert Shield, Desert Storm, Northern Watch, Southern Watch, and Iraqi Freedom, spanning the period 1990-2003. It was common for airmen to put in 200 days per year of temporary duty assignment, Robinson noted.

Now, the Sentrys are back in the sandbox. Earlier this year, the AWACS returned to Southwest Asia. For the airmen of the 552nd, however, the E-3’s return to desert duty was not a replay of things past; rather, it was the opening of a new chapter for the constantly evolving mission of this remarkable aircraft.

During the past few years at Tinker, the wing’s airmen tried to get back into training and apply the lessons of their recent experience in the desert. “We wanted to start all over again, and get back into the books hard,” Robinson said. “We sat back and said … let’s look at what we did in Enduring Freedom, in Iraqi Freedom, and in Kosovo. … What are the things we think we’ll be doing in the future?”

A theme from the combat operations was that air defense and surveillance missions—which had long been the mainstay of the fleet’s history—were giving way to new missions such as air-to-ground management. These new missions comprise, for example, involvement in close air support, combat search and rescue, and the linking of air and space operations centers with a wide array of intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance aircraft.

Now back in Southwest Asia, aircrews and maintainers are adjusting to the demands of supporting a new, more congested battlespace than existed in 2003.

“This aircraft works a lot with deconflicting, particularly in the desert with tankers and UAVs,” said CMSgt. William Lick, a veteran AWACS operator with more than 15 years in the E-3. “There’s a lot out there that needs to keep from running into each other now.”

In CAS environments, the Sentry helps coordinate the critical “kill boxes” for assisting aircraft coming to the scene. “The thing we have that is so great is that radar,” said Robinson. The ability to see the battlespace is “almost unequaled.”

The iconic feature of the AWACS is the rotating radome, about 30 feet wide and six feet thick, perched 11 feet above the fuselage. The radar contained within provides a picture from the surface of the Earth up to the stratosphere, and boasts a range of at least 250 miles for low-flying targets and even farther for targets at medium to high altitudes.

In addition, thanks to data links, the E-3 can transmit the radar picture to the coalition air commander in the combined air and space operations center—allowing commanders to see what the aircrew sees and promptly act on it.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the E-3 was tasked on deployments to several crises and combat operations—from Saudi Arabia during the Iran-Iraq War to Panama.

“Prior to 1991, it was mostly combat type operations,” said Lt. Col. Randy Reynolds, the 552nd director of staff. After Desert Storm the mission began to change, with the advent of advanced air operations centers. “If we can get up there and present a [command and control] or a radar picture [for the joint commander], we’ll do it,” he added.

The E-3 was delivered first to Tinker, 30 years ago, as a follow-on to the EC-121 Constellation. The powerful rotating radar was built upon a modified Boeing 707 airframe packed with complex sensor and tracking equipment that allowed an unequaled view of the battlespace. From the start, the Sentry fleet was a critical asset, using its radar and sensors to gather and disseminate information on airborne targets.

A Host of New Missions

A key to North American Aerospace Defense Command’s efforts to get a better radar picture and early warning against Soviet bombers probing the continent, the E-3 can also control packages of US and allied aircraft. It later successfully transitioned to support counterdrug interdiction efforts off South America and supported combat operations from Iraq to Serbia and back to Iraq again.

The platform has seen its introduction into a host of new mission areas—from Noble Eagle patrols after 9/11 to its debut as a platform to coordinate humanitarian operations in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In 2005, after the hurricane tore through the Gulf Coast, AWACS was part of the package assembled by the Pentagon to assist in the massive relief effort.

“It was a bit of a challenge to do this the first time,” recalled Reynolds. Sentry crews worked with Coast Guard units and civilian authorities to coordinate hundreds of rescue crews searching for survivors.

“Our challenge was to separate and use those assets to get to the right places,” Reynolds said. Aircrews directed military and civilian assets to find survivors. The experience was tough, but AWACS crews assisted with more than 600 rescues.

While the airborne early warning and air defense missions remain the hallmark of the aircraft, its missions and concepts of operations have evolved significantly in the years since Desert Storm.

“What AWACS started out to be for NORAD was very much oriented towards air defense. It’s a testimony to this wing that we haven’t stayed there,” said Maj. Greg Kent, the director of operations for the 552nd Training Squadron. “We’ve had to become a lot more innovative.”

Especially since its return to the desert, AWACS crews now serve as a piece of a larger network. “Being at 3,000 feet with lots of radios is a good thing for a lot of guys on the ground,” Reynolds said. The wing focused on developing the ability to branch out and become part of the larger military communications network. This takes constant practice.

On one recent training flight, Capt. Mike Conlee of the 960th Airborne Air Control Squadron looked at his instruments and announced to his flight crew that they had reached cruising altitude.

This E-3 mission would take the crew over the Rocky Mountains, as far as the Great Falls, Mont., region, said Conlee, the mission’s pilot. The sortie would monitor aircraft along the route and get in some rare practice jamming time with a B-52 equipped with electronic warfare pods.

Mission crew commander Maj. Raymond Lewis looked at one of the dotted orange lines on his readout—the range and bearing toward a target.

Other crew members posited that it might be a B-52. Capt. Jim Siebert—the air surveillance officer—confirmed a B-52 had just come off a tanker refuel. He put out a call over the radio for “Chill 22” from “Goliath”—today’s mission call sign. Moments later, the pilot of the B-52 confirmed his presence and began to set up for electronic attack drills. Chill 22 was 150 miles west of the AWACS, Siebert confirmed. He called the crew on the radio. “Chill 22, hit us with what you’ve got.”

Soon after, the crew confirmed they were getting hit with a Doppler strobe from jamming pods. Red lines dashed across the surveillance screens as the aircraft turned south trying to pick up the bomber and get a good bearing on it. After 20 minutes, the crew signed off. The BUFF had tried to jam the Sentry’s radar, Siebert reported, but the crew got a good track on the bomber and quickly triangulated its location.

Looking at the faded pea-green consoles and the large trackball cursor devices, it seemed not much has changed since the 1970s. Yet despite appearances, the program has begun its largest upgrade yet. When complete, the AWACS fleet will be able to better perform its mission while also networking with other aircraft and ground commanders.

Results Every Day

Capt. Fred Hixon, with the 552nd ACW’s requirements shop, said the upgrade will help bridge the technology gap with the rest of the force. He noted the Block 30/35 upgrades from the mid-1990s—which included more processing power, new tactical information links, electronic support measures, and upgraded GPS—remain very operator intensive. Much of this is because a lot of the aircraft’s electronics remain 1970s vintage.

“There is a lot of ‘fighting the jet’ rather than using the information,” Hixon said.

The Air Force seeks commercial off-the-shelf hardware and software to replace the all-but-dead JOVIAL language airmen must use in the current configuration. Certain video constraints and throughput limitations will be eliminated.

The Block 40/45 fleet upgrade is currently in testing. The first flight was conducted in July 2006, equipped with new mission computing hardware and software and upgraded radar equipment, navigation, and communications systems. The program is scheduled for limited rate production in 2009 and full production in 2012.

MSgt. Shane Fry, the combat support flight chief for the 552nd Computer Systems Squadron, believes the new software and architecture will make a huge difference to young airmen who will be training to maintain the complex computers on the aircraft.

“We’ve got a bunch of kids who are working on systems where the Game Boy they have at home is far more advanced than what they are working on now,” he quipped. Kent agreed, noting the tactics that wind up being used by operators begin with the airmen maintaining the computers and electronics.

“Some of the jobs I’ve had, I’ve felt disconnected from the mission in a way,” Fry said. “Here, that’s not the case; I see my work and the results every day.”