An Eye in the Sky
Jan 15, 2009

Canada’s Investment in International Air Defence
Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) are among the most sophisticated ­elements of modern air forces. Although Canada’s Air Force equipment does not include specific AWACS radar aircraft, our country plays a crucial developmental and operational role within the current North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Air Defence and NATO ­security investment domains.

Canada has been the sixth largest contributor to NATO's military and civil budgets since 1949. Our country was one of the original participants in the NATO Airborne Early Warning and Control Force (NAEW&CF). Specifically, we directly contribute approximately $33 million annually (based on 2004 Canadian Forces released figures) and 114 personnel to the E3A (European based) AWACS Component, located in Geilenkirchen, Germany.

A NATO E-3A makes a final approach to the airfield at NATO Air Base Geilenkirchen, Germany. Photo: MCpl Frank Hudec, Canadian Forces Combat Camera

Canada also contributes a further $43 million to NATO each year via a separate infrastructure and capability fund known as the NATO Security Investment Program (NSIP). This investment makes Canada the third largest contributor to both the capital and annual operating budgets of the NAEW&CF E3A AWACS program.

This commitment to international air defence has paid tangible dividends for more than 50 years. Canada's annual investment in NATO continues to give us full access to strategic information, the opportunity to participate regularly in military exercises with allied forces and an equal voice in high-level decisions affecting Euro-Atlantic security and stability.

Eyes in the Sky
The E3A AWACS program is considered to be one of the crown jewels owned by NATO. Using the powerful radar systems atop E3A aircraft, aircrews are able to guide and vector friendly fighters directly to intercept enemy aircraft. The fleet of 17 E3A radar aircraft and three trainer/cargo planes is the Alliance’s largest common-funded project, financed with pooled resources from NATO member countries. It provides the Alliance with an immediately available airborne surveillance, warning and command capability.

International Community
The NATO AWACS program involves 16 NATO countries: Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States. The UK also has its own specific unit of E3D AWACS aircraft, which are linked to the overall NAEW&CF program.

The AWACS E3A aircraft are modified Boeing 707s, equipped with special radar capable of detecting air traffic over large distances and at low altitudes. The data can be transmitted directly from the aircraft to command and control centers on the ground, sea or in the air. An E3A requires a crew of 17 highly trained men and women to operate the aircraft and all of its on-board systems. An E3A can fly for more than 10 hours (and longer with air-to-air refueling) at 30,000 feet. It can detect low-flying aircraft within 400 kilometres and aircraft flying at a medium altitude within 520 kilometres.

The antennas for the radar systems are found in a rotodome that is carried on top of the aircraft. This structure rotates every ten seconds, providing 360° surveillance coverage. One aircraft flying at 30,000 feet has a radar coverage of 312,000 square kilometers. Three aircraft in overlapping orbits can provide complete radar coverage of all of Central Europe.

A New and Improved E3A, with Canadian Content
The NATO AWACS fleet is currently undergoing the largest and most advanced system upgrade ever through a program known as mid-term modernization (NMT). The entire NATO E3A fleet has been retrofitted resulting in expanded command and control; and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities. Among many major updates the NMT includes new “identify friend or foe” (IFF) interrogators and transponders, additional display consoles and better ultra high frequency (UHF) satellite communication. Because of these recent upgrades, the E3A is considered to be one of the most advanced AWACS platforms anywhere in the world today

Canada can take significant credit for a large portion of the improvements to the E3A platform. A new Canadian-built flat-panel display is the cornerstone of the modernization project. Built by General Dynamics Canada, it was developed and refined in conjunction with input from AWACS crewmembers, many of whom are Canadian Forces personnel. The display allows for a user-friendly set-up, providing the crewmembers with improved operational efficiencies leading to greatly enhanced situational awareness.

Both software and hardware have been improved to allow both flight and mission crews expanded use of the system; for instance, the Joint Tactical Information Distribution System (JTIDS) is first class and an ideal product for possible future training with CF aircraft, Army and Naval assets. JTIDS is a high capacity, secure, flexible, real-time integrated communications system that allows voice and data information to be exchanged amongst military users. Its not unlike civilian computer to computer instant messaging (think messaging/chat) but on much more sophisticated level for split second battlefield exchange of information.

NAEW&CF has increased computer capacity and better electronic support measures, and the addition of the Radar System Improvement Program (RSIP) has made Doppler radar more sensitive at long range. Finally, the NATO E3A fleet will also increase its defensive capability with the installation of a large aircraft infrared countermeasures (LAIRCM) system that will enable the aircraft, for the first time, to have a robust defensive capability. With LAIRCM, Component air assets should have the capacity to counter any infrared missiles inbound.

E3A Training In Canada
Like many other military flying organizations, the NAEW&CF E3A component is also in a perpetual search mode for quality training opportunities around the globe to further validate its NMT product. One of these is Exercise Maple Flag, which takes place annually at 4 Wing Cold Lake, Alberta. Other recent quality training opportunities for E3A operation in Canada have been Exercise Trident Fury in 2006 and exercises with Maritime Force Atlantic (MARLANT) in 2008.

A Critical Military Asset
The NATO AWACS fleet began flying operations in 1982. In recent years, the aircraft have increasingly been deployed on complex and tactical missions, including air-to-air and air-to-ground control, airspace management, air policing, combat search and rescue, force marshalling and threat warning. They have proven to be a critical asset for crisis-management and peace-­support operations.

AWACS aircraft were deployed to eastern Turkey following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 to help reinforce NATO’s southern flank. Starting in July 1992, the NATO and United Kingdom AWACS fleets operated extensively in the Balkans, ­supporting United Nations resolutions in the former Yugoslavia and Alliance missions in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as Kosovo. In 2003, the NATO AWACS fleet flew to protect southeastern Turkey from threats posed by the conflict in Iraq.

Closer to home, seven NATO AWACS aircraft were deployed to the U.S. following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 to help defend North America against ­further attacks. This deployment, named Operation Eagle Assist, represented the first time in Alliance history that NATO assets were deployed to North America in support of the defence of member countries.

Major Mike Collacutt is an Aerospace Control Officer currently posted to 176 Air Control Sqn in Elmendorf Alaska. Prior to his current employment he was the Chief of Standards and Evaluations (CSE) for the E3A Component mission crew at the NATO E3A Component in Geilenkirchen Germany, and one of 114 Canadians employed there within the E3A Component.
© FrontLine Defence 2009