Electronic Weapons: AWACS Then And Forever


February 28, 2018: Japan is spending $61 million to upgrade its four E-767 AWACS (Air Warning And Control) aircraft. Each of the Japanese AWACS will fly to the United States for the work to be done and it will be completed by 2022. This is the fourth round of upgrades for the Japanese AWACS, which have now been in service for 18 years.

While using the same electronics and software as the American E-3 AWACS the Japanese use a larger 1980s era Boeing 767 airliner rather than on the 1950s era year old Boeing 707. The larger aircraft was used mainly because the older 707s were no longer available in the 1990s when Japan decided to buy an AWACS similar to the American E-3. Thus the Japanese AWACS has 50 percent more floor space and twice the internal volume of the E-3. These E-767s cost about $250 million each and were built and tested in the late 1990s before entering service in 2000. The Japanese AWACS will get extensive computer and software improvements with the latest upgrade. Previous upgrades were carried out in 2013, 2010 and 2006. The 2013 upgrade was more extensive and installed the latest electronic countermeasures and communications equipment, which made the systems more capable and easier to use. The2013 round of upgrades also installed a new operating system based on Linux that was easier to upgrade and less susceptible to hacking. Generally the E-767s receive upgrades to keep them nearly identical to the latest E-3 version, which is now the E-3G Block 45.

In 2008 the U.S. Air Force completed testing its latest (“G”) E-3 AWACS upgrades. This Block 40/45 version consists largely of replacing the 1980s era computers and electronics with modern gear. Japan did some of that in a 2010 upgrade but completed it in the 2013 upgrades. The Block 40/45 modifications make 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 nearly all of the hundreds of switches and knobs that surrounded the monitors and keyboards of the old model. Now many operations are automated or use 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 critical element in 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 over 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-control 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 (light bombers) 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 carrier based 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 control air combat operations more thoroughly and effectively.

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 and friendly planes are kept out of each other's way. There was not a single friendly air to air collision during the 1991 Gulf war or in any subsequent operations using the E-3. The Japanese were impressed.

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 twenty-two 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.

The U.S. currently has 32 E-3s while NATO has sixteen, Britain seven, France four, Saudi Arabia five. All were built during the Cold War, which ended in 1991. During the Cold War 68 AWACS based on the 707 were built and most are still in service. The Japanese AWACS are technically identical to these except that Japan used a larger aircraft.

Since the 1960s nearly as many AWACS type aircraft were built based on other types of transports. The most common smaller AWACS type aircraft are the E-2, of which 168 were built since the 1960s and most are still in service. Japan uses 13 E-2s in addition to the larger and more capable E-767s. Many aircraft of similar capability to the E-3 are still built using large business jets or smaller airliners like the 737. As electronics became smaller, lighter and more efficient it has become possible to fit all the equipment of the original E-3 into a smaller aircraft. Japan chose the larger 767 to provide expansion capabilities and the ability to remain aloft longer per sortie.

Japan frequently uses its AWACS to coordinate large scale responses to Russian or Chinese aircraft coming too close to Japanese air space. If nothing else, this shows the Russians and Chinese what the Japanese are capable. A warning, so to speak, and an impressive one.


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