Electronic Weapons: France Buys Better Eyes

Archives

September30, 2008:  France is upgrading its four E-3 AWACS to the Block 40/45 standard. This includes improvements to the computers, Electronic Warfare sensors and defenses, radar capabilities and IFF (Identification Friend or Foe). The upgrades will cost $100 million per aircraft. France considers its E-3s a strategic weapon, which can be flown to any part of the world where French warplanes are operating.

The Block 40/45 upgrade 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 separate switch.

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. The U.S. Navy planned 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.

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 other's 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.

 


Article Archive

Electronic Weapons: Current 2018 2017 2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003 2002 2001 2000 1999 


X

ad
0
20

Help Keep Us Soaring

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling. We need your help in reversing that trend. We would like to add 20 new subscribers this month.

Each month we count on your subscriptions or contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage. A contribution is not a donation that you can deduct at tax time, but a form of crowdfunding. We store none of your information when you contribute..
Subscribe   Contribute   Close