In the early 1970’s, studies directed by NATO’s major military commanders showed that an airborne early warning (AEW) radar system would significantly enhance the Alliance’s air defence capability. In December 1978 NATO’s Defence Planning Committee (DPC) signed a memorandum of understanding to buy and operate a NATO-owned AEW system. With this decision, the member nations embarked on NATO’s largest commonly funded acquisition program.
The NATO Airborne Early Warning & Control Force (NAEW&CF) was established in January 1980. It was granted full NATO Command headquarters status by the DPC on 17 October 1980. Force Command Headquarters is located with Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) in Mons, Belgium, and is commanded either by a US Air Force or German Air Force Major General on a rotational basis. The Deputy Force Commander is always an RAF Air Commodore. Force Command reports directly to the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR).
Today the NAEW&C Force consists of two operational elements called Components: The multi–national NATO E-3A Component at Geilenkirchen, Germany, operating 17 Boeing NATO E-3A AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) aircraft and the RAF E-3D Component at Waddington in the UK with 7 Boeing E-3D AWACS aircraft manned and operated by RAF personnel exclusively. The E-3D Component declared its Initial Operating capability on 1 July 1992, thus putting the NAEW&C Mixed Force concept into effect.
Eighteen nations (Belgium, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Turkey, United Kingdom and the United States) participate in the NAEW&C Force program, with 16 of them providing personnel to the NATO E-3A Component (the UK flies its own E-3 system and Luxembourg does not provide personnel). The E-3As have been operating from the Main Operating Base (MOB) at Geilenkirchen since February 1982. There are four additional bases: Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) are located in Trapani (Italy), in Aktion (Greece) and in Konya (Turkey). There is also a Forward Operating Location (FOL) in Ørland (Norway).
The E-3A/D normally operates at an altitude of 30,000 feet. When established at this altitude, a single E-3A/D can continuously survey the airspace within a radius of more than 400 km of the aircraft and, using digital data links, exchange information with ground- and sea-based commanders. Thus an E-3A/D positioned well within friendly airspace can provide early warning information on both low-flying and high-altitude aircraft operating over the territory of a potential aggressor. While the Force’s principal role is air surveillance, it can also conduct tactical battle management functions such as support and control of friendly aircraft involved in offensive and defensive counter air operations, close air support, battlefield air interdiction, combat search and rescue, reconnaissance, tactical air transport and air to air refuelling missions.
The E-3A/D’s multi-mode radar is able to separate moving targets from ground clutter by use of the so called ‘Doppler’ principle. Consequently the E-3A/D crews are able to detect and track low-flying aircraft, and they are also capable of operating in the maritime mode, which enables the radar to detect and track ships.
The E-3A Component
The E-3A Component is one of two operational elements of the NATO Airborne Early Warning & Control Force. It is NATO’s only multinational operational flying unit, making it unique in military history. The Component’s mission comprises the entire spectrum of tactical command and control in support of effects-based operations throughout the world at the direction of the competent NATO Commanders.
The actual build-up of the E-3A Component started in January 1980; in October 1980 it was granted the status of a NATO International Military Headquarters by the NATO Defence Planning Committee (DPC). Flying operations began in February 1982 after delivery of the first E-3A aircraft. The Component was officially activated on 28 June 1982 and reached Full Operational Capability by the end of 1988.
The Component consists of five main functional areas (Headquarters, Operations Wing, Logistics Wing, Training Wing and Information Technology Wing) as well as other normal staff functions. Each of these major units is commanded by a colonel from a specific NATO nation.
The position of the Component Commander alternates between a German and American Brigadier General. Overall integrated manning of the Component consists of 2,900 multinational military and civilian personnel. This figure includes military and civilian personnel in support functions, such as the engineering support teams of the Bundeswehr Service Centre, the national support units and morale and welfare activities.
Seventeen E-3A aircraft are assigned to the Component. Normally, only a certain number of the E-3As are at NATO Air Base Geilenkirchen at any given time. The remainder are deployed to the Component’s Forward Operating Bases in Aktion (Greece); Trapani (Italy); and Konya (Turkey); and to the Forward Operating Location at Ørland (Norway); or to other allied airfields. Each of the forward operating facilities is located on a national installation. The Component has approximately 20 military and civilian personnel at each site; they are NATO personnel assigned to the Component, but all are from the respective host nations.
Thirty multinational aircrews from 16 out of NATO’s 28 nations are assigned to the Component’s three operational E-3A squadrons. The Training Wing has a flying squadron as well, the Aircrew Training Squadron.
NATO’s three Trainer Cargo Aircraft (TCA) were used from 1985 to 2011 for flight crew training and for transporting cargo. The aircraft, a modified Boeing 707-320C, could be configured for allpassenger or all-cargo use, or in a combined setup for carrying both cargo and passengers.The first TCA was retired in August 2010 (to the 309th AMARG in the USA), the second in September 2011 (to Ingolstadt-Manching, Germany) and the last one in December 2011 (to Maastricht, The Netherlands).
TNT Airlines SA has been contracted to provide cargo and passenger services, starting January 2012 with an dedicated B757 for this purpose.
In 2012 the Component also started their first retrofit overhaul on LX-N90459, incorporating a glass cockpit and upgraded mission equipments at Boeing Field, Seattle. On New Years Eve 2014 the first flight after maintenance was performed and the E-3A in question is expected back at Geilenkirchen early 2016. Then the remaining thirteen E-3A's will be upgraded by Airbus military at Manching-Ingolstadt to get to the same standard. Sadly three AWACS will be disposed, including LX-N90449 who was flown to the 309th AMARG facility on 24 June 2015.
The NATO Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS)
Following the possible replacement of the E-3A platform in 2010 the desire for additional intelligence gathering led to the start of the stand alone AGS program in 2012. The AGS system is being acquired by 15 NATO countries: Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Norway, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and the United States, and will be operational in 2017.
The AGS core will be an integrated system consisting of an air segment, a ground segment and a support segment. The air segment consists of five RQ-4B Global Hawk Block 40 aircraft (first one was unveiled in 2015 with an first flight on 19 December 2016) and remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) flight control elements. The aircraft will be equipped with a state-of-the-art, multi-platform radar technology insertion program (MP-RTIP) ground surveillance radar sensor, as well as an extensive suite of line-of-sight and beyond-line-of-sight, long-range, wideband data links. In addition, The United Kingdom and France will provide contribution in kind aircraft to complement the Global Hawks.The ground segment will provide an interface between the AGS core system and a wide range of command, control, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C2ISR) systems to interconnect with multiple deployed and non-deployed operational users, including reach-back facilities remote from the surveillance area. The AGS main operating base (MOB) in Sigonella, Italy. (c) NATO