How the AWACS Keeps Us Safe

As an Airborne Warning And Control System, or AWACS for short, the E-3 is really just like a flying control tower.

For as long as war has existed, getting battlefield information has often been pivotal to victory or defeat. While we no longer use fast horse-mounted scouts for this purpose, the role is still vital, albeit changed beyond all recognition, technologically speaking.

The modern version of the horse-mounted scout is the "Airborne Warning and Control System," or AWACS. It provides military commanders with a comprehensive, real-time picture of the battlefield, including the location and movement of friendly and enemy forces. This information can be used to coordinate and direct military operations, as well as to defend against air and missile attacks.

In addition, AWACS can also be used for civilian purposes such as air traffic control and search and rescue operations.

All very interesting, but what exactly is it?

AWACS military aircraft are equipped with radar and other sensors to detect and track aircraft and other airborne objects. Although AWACS refers to a specific system installed in the Boeing E-3 “Sentry” and Japanese Boeing E-767 airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) airframes, it is also used as a generalized synonym for the role they perform.

Designed for long-range airborne radar detection of aircraft, ships, vehicles, missiles, and other incoming projectiles, this system also functions as a command and control system for the battlespace during an air engagement by directing the strikes of fighter and attack aircraft.

Additionally, AEW&C units routinely carry out combat management command, control, and surveillance, including overground targets. The radar on the aircraft can identify and track objects far farther away than a comparable ground-based radar when operated at altitude. It can also tell friendly from hostile aircraft.

Similar to a ground-based radar, it can be detected by adversaries, but due to its mobility and wider sensor field of view, it is significantly more resistant to counterattacks.

Modern AEW&C systems have a detection range of up to 220 nautical miles (400 km), far beyond the reach of most surface-to-air missiles. A single AEW&C aircraft can cover a 120,000 sq mi (312,000 km2) area while flying at 30,000 ft (9,000 meters).

To put that into perspective, three of these planes can cover Central Europe in overlapping orbits.

By communicating with friendly aircraft, AEW&C systems direct fighters toward hostile aircraft or any other flying unknown object, provide information on threats and targets, help extend their sensor range, and make offensive aircraft harder to track because they no longer need to keep their radar active (which the enemy can detect) to detect threats.

In addition to being a highly mobile and potent radar platform, AEW&C aircraft are employed for defensive and offensive air operations. They are to NATO and US-trained or integrated air forces what the combat information center is to a navy cruiser.

The system is used defensively to guide counterattacks against enemy air and ground troops and offensively to lead fighters to their target locations. Because of their high-altitude advantage, command and control planes are sometimes flown by navies from their warships at sea.

The US Navy's supercarriers are equipped with Northrop Grumman E-2 Hawkeye AEW&C aircraft to protect them and improve their onboard command and information centers (CICs). The Fairey Gannet AEW.3 and Lockheed EC-121 “Warning Star,” as well as the RAF's “Sentry” AEW1, were earlier models of similar aircraft used in the less-demanding radar picket role under the designation "airborne early warning" (AEW), whereas AEW&C emphasizes the command and control capabilities that may not be present on smaller or simpler radar picket aircraft.

AWACS, or rather the role it plays, will always be required by military commanders as long as war exists, so while the technology will undoubtedly change in the future, the need for some form of AWACS will likely be around for some time to come.