The U.S. Air Force has completed testing its latest E-3 AWACS (Air
Warning And Control System) upgrades. This Block 40/45 version consists largely
of replacing the 1980s era computers and electronics with modern gear. This also
makes it possible to more quickly upgrade hardware and software (often using
off-the-shelf commercial stuff) in the future. Most visibly, the new software
eliminates most of the hundreds of switches and knobs that surrounded the
monitors and keyboards of the old model. Not only are many operations
automated, but using many functions are now point-and-click on a screen, not a
The AWACS proved to be a key to victory in the
1991, 2001 and 2003 campaigns. The key to doing this was knowing where all
friendly aircraft were at all times. Directing a lot of warplanes over enemy
territory has long been a problem. It was elegantly solved with the development
of airborne control aircraft like the E-3. But it took half a century to
perfect this approach.
The problem was first noted during World War II,
when operations involving over a thousand aircraft in the air at once
demonstrated how out of hand things could get. But no technical solution was
available. That is, you could not put a radar in an aircraft powerful enough to
get the big picture, the entire picture.
However the U.S. Navy did plan to use radar
equipped TBF Avengers to control the fighter screen protecting the fleet from
Japanese suicide bombing attacks during the planned 1945 invasion of Japan. But
the invasion never came off and the Navy pursued the radar equipped control
aircraft idea at a more leisurely pace after the war. The navy E-1 airborne
early warning aircraft first flew in 1956 and entered service in 1960. While
mainly used to extend the radar coverage of a naval task force, this type of
aircraft also had a vital role in controlling large numbers of friendly
warplanes in air battles.
The U.S. Air Force also kept working on the
problem. By 1953, the Air Force was able to send propeller driven transports
(EC 121 Lockheed Constellations), equipped with powerful radar and radio
equipment, off the coasts of North America to watch for Russian bombers.
Beginning in 1965, the first of thirty EC 121s was sent to Vietnam, where they
controlled combat operations in the northern part of the country. As useful as
these aircraft were, it was obvious that, with a little more technology, one
could really control air combat operations.
The ultimate solution came in the form of a four
engine jet transport converted to a flying radar station and control tower.
This was the E-3 AWACS, whose
development began in the late 1960s, and the first prototypes were flying in
the late 1970s. The E-3 went into regular use in 1982. Flying far enough inside
friendly territory to avoid enemy anti aircraft missiles, the AWACS radar has a
radar 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 others way (there was not a single friendly air to air collusion during
the 1991 Gulf war, or in any subsequent operations using the E-3.)
Enemy aircraft are spotted, identified and friendly
interceptors assigned to take care of the hostile planes. 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. Its
first wartime workout, during the 1991 Gulf war, was a spectacular success,
often in more ways than anticipated. For example, 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, 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.