NATO E-3A AWACS Operations

Over 3 years of NATO E-3A operations in Afghanistan, in light of ISAF, came to an end when the last E-3A AWACS landed at NATO Air Base Geilenkirchen, Germany on September 25, 2014. It was one of many events for the E-3A Component last year. We visited Geilenkirchen to review 2014 and to look forward to what the future brings for the E-3A Component.

Established in January 1980, as part of the NATO Airborne Early Warning & Control Force (NAEW&CF), the E-3A Component is the only multinational operational flying unit within NATO. It received its first E-3A aircraft in 1982 and is based at NATO Air Base Geilenkirchen, Germany ever since. Three additional bases in Europe act as Forward Operating Bases (FOB), being Trapani (Italy), Aktion (Greece) and Konya (Turkey) and one base acts as a Forward Operating Location (FOL), being Ørland (Norway). Seventeen nations (Belgium, 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 15 of them providing personnel to the NATO E-3A Component. Luxembourg doesn't provide personnel and the United Kingdom only provides personnel to the other operational E-3 component; the RAF E-3D Component based at RAF Waddington, UK. Last year, Canada decided to end their participation after more than 32 years of leadership of the operations wing, leaving a large gap behind.

2014, as said, was one of the most hectic years in the history of the E-3A component. We spoke to Lt. Col. Peter Geubbels, Tactical Director at the E-3A Component and deployed on behalf of the Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF). Looking back on the previous year he says: "Last year was a very hectic year. In the beginning of 2014 we had two factors that had be taken into account; first being the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) operations in Afghanistan in which we had 2 aircraft based (operating out of Mazar-e Shariff, red..) and a crew rotation on a monthly base. Second there was the planned runway restoration between April and September." Initial planning was to complete the project in eight cycles of 11 days of work and 3 days of re-opening the runway which made it possible for E-3A aircraft to return for, and depart after phase maintenance on the aircraft itself. Daily operations were flown out of the FOB and FOL where the aircraft and personnel were based temporarily, it marked the first time the Component operated only out of all FOB/FOL for a longer period of time. Lt. Geubbels adds: "It was a logistic challenge but, besides some minor issues, it all went flawless."

One unplanned event however had more impact at the Component’s operations. On March 10, Due to the developments in Crimea and the East of Ukraine, the North Atlantic Council (NAC) decided to employ E-3 aircraft over Poland and Romania. The objective was twofold; to observe the airspace and identifying flying activity, but it was also an assurance to NATO allies adjacent to the Ukraine. Lt. Geubbels explains: "From day one it was full house! Orbits above Poland and Romania were flown simultaneous, seven days a week. Sometimes only one aircraft was available." Poland and Romania were the best options to execute these missions as they had to stay in NATO airspace. No missions were flown above the black sea despite its more strategic location. "We absolutely don't have the intention to make provocations" Lt. Col. Geubbels says. According to Lt. Col. Geubbels these missions put a strain on the E-3A's regular missions and training opportunities. "but we will continue as long as NAC requests".

The Missions

Based on the Boeing 707 airframe, the seventeen E-3A aircraft are characterized by their 11ft high and 30ft wide rotodome on top of the aft fuselage. Contrary to the UK E-3D or USAF KC-135 aircraft, which are based on the same airframe and fitted with newer engines, four TF33 Pratt & Whitney 100A turbofan engines, delivering a trust of 20,500lbs. / 9.523,5kp. each are another key element of the E-3A visible from the outside. However, it’s all about the inside. This is where the technology is in place to execute the missions the E-3A Component has, both in its primary role; Airspace Surveillance of the affiliated NATO countries, and secondary role; Tactical Air Battle Management.

The missions executed in light of ISAF operations compromised of airspace monitoring and airspace management. In these missions the AWACS acts as a Command, Reporting and Control (CRC) center for lack of a vast infrastructure in Afghanistan. As more and more troops are being withdrawn from the area of conflict, the daily traffic the AWACS had to handle became less and less during last year. According to Lt. Col. Geubbels the training value of these missions decreased because of this development but the responsibility was extremely high: “We had to control tankers and fighters and our job is to keep it safe. During emergencies, so called troops in contact, you have to set a restricted air space for the Combat Air Support. A JTAC (Joint terminal attack controller, or Forward Air Controller -FAC- red…) guides the aircraft in the last stage to their target but we have the responsibility tankers are available as well as a second batch of attack aircraft in case they are needed. You don’t want any collisions or aircraft out of fuel.” While the primary role, Airspace Surveillance, is executed over Poland and Romania there’s not much training value in it as well. Lt. Col. Geubbels continues: “Traffic is very slow in these regions, to add some training we have agreed with the Polish Air Force to guide some 2vs2 training missions by their MiG29s and F-16s during our missions in their airspace. We keep basic qualified people up to date but more experienced colleagues are more difficult to challenge.”

Pictured here is a situation where the E-3A Component keeps their people current but is challenged to keep them proficient. For the latter it’s essential to take part in large scale exercises like Red Flag in Las Vegas, USA or Tactical Leadership Programme (TLP) in Albacete, Spain. In 2013 we had the opportunity to join one of the E-3A training missions flown during Frisian Flag, which is another large scale exercise organized by the RNLAF.

With thirty-one people on board our flight it was crowded in the office. Apart from a couple guests some functions were double manned to get the most training value out of the mission.The following roles can be found in the AWACS:

  • Aircraft Commander, First Pilot, Flight Engineer and Navigator in the cockpit
  • Communications Technician and System Technician
  • Surveillance Operators
  • Weapon Controllers
  • Fighter Allocator
  • Tactical Director
  • Surveillance Controller and Passive Controller
  • Radar Technician

During our flight the AWACS acted as CRC, just like ISAF, and was in command of the mission supporting blue air with tactical callsign MAGIC51. Each role just mentioned plays a vital function in executing the mission given. All decisions made are based on the Recognized Air Picture (RAP). This is the radar picture in which all aircraft are identified as being friendly or hostile. Responsible for the RAP is the Surveillance Controller supported by the Surveillance Operators. Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) systems on board of the AWACS help to identify the participating aircraft. When an aircraft has a pre-expected location, speed and identification from its transponder it's declared friendly. Otherwise it's declared hostile. The Passive Controller shares the RAP with all friendly aircraft and other participants through Link-16, an integrated secured data exchange network.

The Surveillance Controller is in direct contact with the Tactical Director who is responsible for the overall conduct of the mission as tasked by the operating authorities. During our mission we had 2 Tactical Directors on board of which one was in charge of the mission and the other functioned as a backup and viewer of the bigger picture. Central located is the Fighter Allocator, being responsible for the coordinated use of airspace. He is responsible for the Weapon Officers who are in contact with (a group of) aircraft, acting as a kind of wingman. They assist the fighter pilots in executing their (pre-planned) mission with tactical orders.

In 2014, the E-3A Component only took part in one of such exercises, being Red Flag last October. This year however participation is planned for the following exercises (of which some already have taken place): Several TLP exercises in Spain, Red Flag USA and Artic Challenge to mention a few. According to Lt. Col. Geubbels this for sure will help to keep the crew proficient. Another aspect however is the recruitment and intake of new personnel. When Canada left the E-3A Component last year, it was decided not to fill in all positions because of a reorganization which currently is going on in the E-3A component; in 2017 seven hundred jobs have to be whittled. Together with the -yet to be established- Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS), a NATO initiative to acquire four RQ-4B Global Hawk Block 40 Unmanned Arial Vehicle (UAV) to be based at Sigonella Air Base, Italy the whole organization should consist of a total of two thousand staff. Lt. Col. Geubbels explains: “On a short notice this should not affect the E-3A operations but on a longer term you do need new influx. One benefit is we only get well trained people who have a couple of years’ experience in their own air force. Upon arrival at the E-3A Component they will undergo a conversion programme which is required to get familiar with the modern systems and associated procedures. This however lasts up till a year and you need to act in time.”

Tactical Director

As said, the Tactical Director is responsible for the overall conduct of the mission as tasked by the operating authorities. With Lt. Col. Geubbels being a Tactical Director himself we asked for a deeper explanation of this very important role while executing the mission. He explains: “The fact is that as a Tactical Director you’re responsible for the mission of the aircraft. You have contact with the Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) for mission execution and possible changes on the mission. You’re not responsible for the aircraft and flight safety itself; that’s the Aircraft Commander and his flight crew. Based on fuel, weather and technique (state of the aircraft) he decides if the aircraft can safely execute the mission. The Tactical Director needs to take this into account and if the Aircraft Commander says it’s not safe to continue we have to return to base.”

That this doesn’t necessarily mean the mission has to be aborted after the Aircraft Commander’s call, is made clear by an actual example which took place last year over Northern Scotland. Lt. Col. Geubbels continues: “Last year we were assigned a mission over UK Airspace to escort a package of F-15 Eagles (based at RAF Lakenheath, UK, USAFE red…) when two Tupolev Tu-95 Bears (Rusian Air Force red…) showed up in international air space. Our mission was re-assigned to follow their movements north of Scotland, UK. At a sudden moment we got a 15 minute call from the Aircraft Commander to return to base, in this case being Geilenkirchen. I was Tactical director on that mission and I asked for a calculation to go to Forward Operating Location Ørland instead. We got permission from the CAOC and informed Ørland. It all turned out we could continue to follow the Bears up to north of Ørland and we landed there.”

Looking forward

For this year, operations focus on a couple of subjects already mentioned; to stay proficient and the monitoring missions over Poland and Romania will continue as there’s no ending date set yet. A couple of changes apply to the operational fleet as well. To meet current and future European Communication, Navigation, Surveillance / Air Traffic Management (CNS/ATM) airspace requirements, effective as of 2017, the E-3A aircraft are being upgraded with glass cockpits and other advanced avionics in the DRAGON (Diminishing Manufacturing Sources Replacement of Avionics for Global Operation and Navigation) programme. Budget limitations however means NATO has decided to upgrade only 14 of the current 17 operational aircraft. The first aircraft will already be retired later this year and is destined to go to the 309thAerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG) in Tucson, Arizona, USA, also being called the Boneyard. The fate of the other two aircraft a bit uncertain at the moment. They are not scheduled for AMARG yet and this is being postponed a little in light of the ongoing developments in the East of Europe. It may turn out more money is funded and then they might be upgraded after all. This all is more speculation by sources on base than hard facts however.

Whatever the near future will bring for the E-3A Component and how world-wide situations will influence the agenda of the missions being executed, one thing is for sure: “We will stay a very professional organization and NATO and affiliate partners can always rely on us. An AWACS always is the first appliance which is available and being used as we’re not an offensive military system but monitor and observe only.” Lt. Col. Geubbels concludes.

Side note: at the moment of the interview it was not clear which airframe would be retired. On 13th May however, E-3A LX-N90449 flew it's last operational mission. It will be flown to AMARG on June 23rd.

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