NATO Response Force
Jan 15, 2004

It is no secret that the Cold War alliance is looking to find a role in the 21st century. Considered by many as too static to respond to today’s rapidly changing security threats, NATO planners are counting heavily on the NATO Response Force (NRF), a multinational, rapidly deployable land, sea and air unit capable of engagement at short notice anywhere and which is to be fully operational by 2006. “If the NATO Response Force works,” says US Marine Corps Gen James L. Jones, the alliance’s supreme allied commander, “NATO will be transformed.”

Secretary General Lord Robertson has ­suggested that the NRF would do well to emulate the NATO Airborne Early Warning and Control Force (NAEW&CF) and its E-3 AWACS air surveillance squadrons, citing their flexibility, quick deployment and full integration. Based at Geilenkirchen, Germany, the NAEW&CF also have four Forward Operating Bases located in Aktion (Greece), Trapani (Italy), Konya (Turkey), and Oerland (Norway).

The NAEW&CF first came to prominence with OPERATION ANCHOR GUARD, the NATO deployment in response to the Gulf Crisis in 1990, later providing continuous coverage of UN relief flights to Sarajevo in April 1993. Its E-3 Sentries were heavily involved in OPERATION DENY FLIGHT establishing a “no-fly zone” over Bosnia-Herzegovina, followed by OPERATION ALLIED FORCE, the air war in Kosovo. Little known to the North Ameri­can public is that following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, NATO, for the first time in its history, invoked Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, (stating that an armed attack against one or more NATO member countries is considered an attack against all NATO countries), and deployed seven NAEW&CF aircraft and 826 personnel to the US heartland to help secure North American airspace as part of Operation EAGLE ASSIST.

While the Control Force’s principal role is air surveillance, it offers communications support for air operations including counter-air, close air support, rescue, reconnaissance and airlift as well as ­surveillance and control. Aircrews can exchange information with ground- and sea-based commanders, since E-3As and E-3Ds can use maritime mode radar to detect and monitor enemy shipping. The AEW radar is able to look down and ­separate moving targets from the ­stationary ground clutter that confuses other radars.

While the E3A may be an old design, Canadian Forces’ Captain Brian D. Ward says it has a good airframe and the cockpit has a clean lay out. The instruments and avionics are not modern but get the job done.

The E3A is not difficult to pilot if you come from a transport background, because it is heavy and slow in the roll. But it takes some time for fighter pilots to get used to its performance in flight (or lack of). It is slow to accelerate, but not easy to slow its momentum once moving. Because it has the RADAR dish on top, its high end speed is lower than a B707, and its rudder effectiveness for takeoff and landing on wet runways is limited by the RADAR supports, therefore, the E3A must take off with less fuel. Because this aircraft operates like an ­airliner (going into an orbit and then returning to base), the pilots tend to hand fly as much as possible.

The E-3A Sentry’s crew has a minimum of seventeen personnel: the two pilots, ­navigator and flight engineer that are responsible for flying the aircraft and the mission crew of thirteen personnel.  The crew can be compiled from 13 different nations which creates its own challenges as each member can have different levels of English and flying backgrounds. The pilots can come from transport aircraft (light or heavy) or fighter background, and they can upgrade to Aircraft Commander in as ­little as 300 hrs on type.

Canada has participated in the NAEW&CF since its inception in 1978 and is the third-largest contributor after the United States and Germany. The Canadian Forces contingent consists of 125 personnel at all levels, 114 of which are employed in the maintenance and operation of the 17 Boeing E-3A Sentry aircraft, while the remainder are in the Canadian Contingent’s organic administrative support element.

There is widespread consensus that NATO must change, that it must modernize and transform into a rapidly deployable force able to operate anywhere at a moment’s notice. Whatever happens, its planners can only hope to emulate the success of the NAEWF&CF and its E-3A Sentries.

Peter Pigott is an aviation author whose twelfth book “Taming the Skies: A Celebration of Canadian Flight” has just been published.
© FrontLine Defence 2004