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Screwing The French
by James Dunnigan
October 14, 2012

The U.S. has angered the French Air Force by reneging on a 2010 contract to upgrade the four French E-3F AWACS (Air Warning And Control System) aircraft. The agreed on price is $466 million, and now the U.S. wants to tack on another $5 million so the promised technology can be degraded. This is all because some American bureaucrat decided that some of the upgrade technology was too sensitive for the French and had to be taken out of the upgrade. The French are being asked to pay for this change. The French are not happy. The U.S. insists such changes are allowed for these deals but are having a hard time convincing the French.

The upgrade will replace ancient (mainframe based) computers with PC type networked hardware. This will enable regular upgrades with new processors and data storage equipment. New software will introduce a Windows type interface and joysticks. This is similar to an upgrade performed on American AWACS. French AWACS will remain able to closely cooperate with E-3 type AWACS used by other nations. The new American restrictions mainly involve new software.

E-3 AWACS development began in the late 1960s, and the first prototypes were flying in the late 1970s, and it went into regular use in 1982. Flying far enough inside friendly territory to avoid enemy anti-aircraft missiles, the AWACS radar has a range of between 200 km (for small aircraft or cruise missiles flying close to the ground) to 600 km (for large aircraft flying at high altitude). The AWACS tracks several hundred friendly and enemy aircraft at once. The AWACS acts as an airborne command center for aircraft. Friendly planes are kept out of each other's' way (there has not been a friendly air-to-air collusion since the 1991 Gulf war and the first major use of the E-3). Enemy aircraft are spotted, identified and friendly interceptors assigned to take care of the threat. One or more AWACS is used to control an air operation and each can stay up eleven hours at a time, or up to 22 hours with refueling and extra crew on board to man the equipment. The AWACS functions as a combination radar platform and command center.

During its first wartime workout, during the 1991 Gulf war, the AWACS proved its worth, often in more ways than anticipated. The use of over a hundred tankers to refuel combat aircraft would not have been possible without the AWACS being there to efficiently link tankers and aircraft needing fuel. Forming up the Wild Weasels (electronic warfare aircraft), and coordinating their use with the bombers they escorted, was much easier using an AWACS. Just keeping track of who was who and going where would not have been possible without the AWACS. The communications equipment on board an AWACS allows information gathered by one AWACS to be quickly shared with other AWACS in the vicinity, other combat aircraft in the area as well as units at sea or on the ground. This function, which was eventually made to work, gave generals and admirals the goal of trying to link together all the sensor and communications of every ship, aircraft, and ground unit in the area. But first, an AWACS for ground operations was needed.

The Gulf War experience was immediately put to use during the Afghanistan war and insured that the bombers, and the aerial tankers that kept everyone flying, were always where they were needed. This was later repeated in the 2003 Iraq war. This sort of thing doesn't make the news but without AWACS a lot of those newsworthy bombs would have never made it to their targets.

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