AWACS - Pre-Eminent Symbol of American Airpower

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Geoffrey Weiss
  • 964th Expedionary Airborne Air Control Squadron
A 2010 edition of Air Force Magazine declared the E-3 Sentry (AWACS) "perhaps the pre-eminent symbol of American operational presence." But how much do you know about this aircraft, its history, roles, missions, capabilities and personnel?

Brought to life in the 1970s, the E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System was originally intended as a weapon of the Cold War. Now, packed with electronics and highly trained personnel, the E-3 has matured to become one of the most versatile aircraft in the history of airpower.

The U.S. operates 32 E-3s. Most are stationed at Tinker Air Force Base as part of the 552nd Air Control Wing and its four combat flying squadrons: the 960th, 963rd, 964th and 965th Airborne Air Control Squadrons. Many countries operate variations of the E-3, and there is not a country in the world serious about airpower that is not at least attempting to develop a similar aircraft.

The E-3's distinctive radome is 30-feet wide and 6-feet tall and houses a powerful radar and IFF array. Inside, the aircraft is packed with operator consoles where the mission crew monitors and employs sensors, radios, and other equipment to provide command and control.

AWACS crews are unique in the U.S. Air Force. On the flight deck, an aircraft commander, co-pilot, navigator and flight engineer handle flying duties. The aircraft commander is responsible for the aircraft and its safety. In the back, there is a panoply of personnel each with specific functions that integrate for synergistic effects. The radar, computer and radio technicians are responsible for all the technical equipment. The senior director supervises a team of air weapons officers to provide direction via radio and datalink to aircraft of all types. The air surveillance officer directs surveillance technicians in tracking and identifying aircraft, employing the sensors, and establishing datalinks. The electronic combat officer operates passive systems to detect and identify air or ground sites based on their electronic emissions. The mission crew commander supervises the entire mission crew and is responsible with the aircraft commander for accomplishing all elements of a mission tasking. The aircraft can also operate with additional battlestaff or host-nation flyers depending on the need.

If flexibility is the key to airpower, then the E-3 is the key to flexibility. The E-3 is routinely engaged around the globe in every airpower focus area from humanitarian/disaster relief to combat. The aircraft and crews are so adaptable that multiple missions can be accomplished simultaneously from the same aircraft or in sequence on a single sortie. For example, on Sept. 11, 2001, aircraft on training sorties were able, within minutes, to re-role into NORAD airborne command centers. During a combat sortie, an E-3 crew can concurrently direct aerial refueling, track aircraft, conduct CSAR, troubleshoot datalinks, control intercepts, relay battle damage, coordinate ATO changes, etc. If the CAOC or CRC are destroyed, the E-3 can assume their battle management functions.

In the U.S., E-3s protect the president and foreign dignitaries as well as special events, such as the Olympic Games. E-3s also support relief efforts such as those after Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. E-3s help law enforcement in counterdrug ops. If it is important and happens on the earth or in the air, the E-3 is there.

Well now you know quite a bit about that white plane with the black and white Frisbee on top. It is here to support all of CENTCOM's priorities and is sending a big message to our allies and adversaries alike: we are here to fly, fight and WIN!