NAEW&C Force
Airborne Early Warning & Control
© 2020 FrontLine Defence (Vol 17, No 1)

Knowing what a potential enemy is doing or, more importantly, what they’re about to do, has always been a key component of warfare but now militaries worldwide rely increasingly on sophisticated technologies to gain, and preferably sustain, strategic advantage.

The current approach, generally packaged as C4ISR (Command, Control, Communica­­tions, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance), is routinely used by land, sea and air forces. In Canada’s case, the main airborne C4ISR platform is the elderly but updated fleet of Lockheed Martin CP-140 turboprop Auroras.

Acquired in the early 1980s and initially tasked as anti-submarine patrols, they now focus mainly on longer-range missions over our landmass, oceans and coastal regions. Foreign missions have included deployments to the Middle East and Europe in support of multinational operations.

However, the main C4ISR mission in Europe falls to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s Airborne Early Warning & Control (NAEW&C) Force, which has historically involved Royal Canadian Air Force personnel. Command is periodically swapped between brigadier generals in the United States and German air forces, with a Royal Netherlands Air Force colonel always serving as deputy.

It was set up in 1978 with NATO’s own fleet of 14 E-3 Sentry modified Boeing 707s with their signature rotating radome. Canada was initially a regular participant, contributing some $50 million annually to what was commonly called an Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS), and sending rotating deployments of 16 personnel to Germany. That investment was throttled back, and eventually cut, by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government in 2011. 

Seven years later, the Liberals under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a modest return to the NAEW&C mission.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said at the time that the renewed commitment would be financial only, but the possibility of RCAF crew members to be aboard “will be explored at a later date.” Prime Minister Trudeau later confirmed that five cadres, each of five RCAF personnel, would be part of the renewed involvement. 

The first Canadian cadre – comprised of two Aerospace Control Officers (including Canadian Component Commander, LCol Donald McKillop); one pilot; an aerospace engineer; and an avionics technician in a supervisory position – arrived in Geilenkirchen, Germany, last summer to begin their deployment to the technically-intense NAEW&C. Other identities are withheld due to DND privacy policies.  

Although the COVID-19 pandemic did result in a slight slowdown of the intense training regimen for the past few months, FrontLine was told that one of the three aircrew members have completed it and the others were scheduled for completion check-rides in the last two weeks of July. The two maintenance personnel were integrated more rapidly.

DND has confirmed that six additional Canadians had been lined up for Geilenkirchen but COVID-19 meant more delay. Five were to arrive between late July and mid-October, pending completion of aircrew qualification in Canada, but those courses have been delayed by the pandemic. The sixth will defer until 2021.

“Canada’s contribution of 25 personnel over the next five years complements Canada’s annual financial contribution of $17 to $20 million since April 2018,” the Department of National Defence told FrontLine. “By contributing to the operations and support budget […] Canada continues to show its support for NATO and its commitment to Alliance burden-sharing.”

Canada’s return to the NAEW&C program came at a time of intense pressure by the U.S. on all NATO members to increase defence spending, and tensions in Eastern Europe had prompted NATO to step up the frequency of its overflights.

NAEW&C crews have flown the E-3s in support of missions in parts of the Middle East, as well as to help secure the alliance’s eastern flank in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea five years ago. It’s a mission that is becoming increasingly critical as Russia has become expansionist in recent years, on land, in the air, and on and under the sea.

E-3 Sentry, NATO Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft.

Also used for command-and-control purposes, including fighter coordination, as well as search and rescue support, the E-3As usually fly at an altitude of approximately 10 kilometres (32,800 ft), enabling their multinational crews to monitor airspace within a radius of more than 400km (nearly 250 miles) while digitally linked to ground, sea, and airborne commanders.
Typical missions last eight hours, during which their pulse Doppler radar can distinguish between targets and ground reflections, giving early warning of low- or high-flying aircraft of a potential aggressor.

When Minister Sajjan announced the renewed commitment to “a key NATO capability” and described the alliance as “a cornerstone of Canada’s international security policy, and is one of our most important multilateral relationships.” 

As outlined in the June 2017 Strong, Secure, Engaged (SSE) policy document, Canada’s commitment to the alliance includes “leading and/or contributing forces to NATO and coalition efforts to deter and defeat potential adversaries, including terrorists, to support global stability,” as well as “leading and/or contributing to international peace operations and stabilization missions with the United Nations, NATO, and other multilateral partners.”

It could be argued that the development isn’t entirely altruistic. Between 1992 and 2011 when it withdrew, Canada had spent $161 million on the program – but its involvement also generated $180 million in contracts for Canadian companies – a decent 15% return on the investment.

Also, it’s possible that the E-3As could be replaced by remotely-piloted or even autonomous ISR platforms, in which case, could the current smaller investment yield similar payback? It’s uncertain, but NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg confirmed late last year the alliance would spend more than U$1 billion to upgrade the E-3s with new communications and networking capabilities designed to keep them in service until at least 2035. 

When Stoltenberg met in Brussels with the president of Boeing International, Sir Michael Arthur, to confirm the moderni­zation contract, the Secretary-General said 16 NATO members “on both sides of the Atlantic” would be underwriting the cost.

Stoltenberg also took the opportunity to look beyond 2035, telling reporters that NATO is “already thinking about the future of our surveillance and control capability,” in part being fulfilled by remotely-piloted Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) aircraft based on the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk built for the U.S. Air Force.

Equipped with high-resolution synthetic aperture radar and long-range electro-optical/infrared sensors, the five AGS platforms can loiter at high altitude for long periods, surveying as much as 100,000km2 (40,000 square miles) of territory per day, for up to 30 hours non-stop.

The first of five AGS aircraft landed at the NATO base in Sigonella, Italy, in November 2019, having flown directly from California in 22 hours.

The first fully NATO owned and operated system of its kind, the fleet expands NATO’s surveillance capability and supports a broader range of all-weather missions, including protection of ground troops and civilian populations, border control and maritime safety, counter-terrorism, crisis management and humanitarian assistance after natural disasters.

The capital cost of the aircraft and the European-sourced ground command and control stations are being covered by 15 NATO member countries, but they are flown and maintained on behalf of the entire 30-nation alliance.

The question of whether the AGS or other remotely-piloted systems could eventually replace the NAEW&C entirely is carefully skirted by Stoltenberg and others within the alliance. For now, the German politician-diplomat will only say that NATO will work “closely” with industry. “We will consider how technologies like artificial intelligence, autonomous systems and big data can help NATO keep its edge,” he says. “We will continue to modernize and adapt.”

At this stage, the implications for Canadian or any other human crews in NATO’s increasingly-critical C4ISR program obviously remain to be seen. 

Post 2035 – System of Systems
As plans forge ahead for a billion-dollar final life-extension of the E-3As (designed to keep them operational until 2035), NATO also is assessing their eventual replacement, which could be a “system of systems” that would involve other intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) technologies such as the AGS. The concept was agreed to at the alliance’s 2016 Warsaw Summit when leaders launched the Alliance Future Surveillance and Control (AFSC) project and Brussels is currently assessing proposals by six consortia competing for what could be a $10-billion procurement.

NATO hopes to refine its requirement by the end of this year, which would set the stage for more industry feedback in 2021 and then a probable definition of final requirements in 2023, all within a budget of €118.2 million.

Çağatay Soyer, an authority on ISR interoperability architecture and AFSC project manager within the Luxembourg-based NATO Support and Procurement Agency (NSPA), values industry input – which included two industry days early in the process. “We intend to continue this interaction without jeopardising later competition, bidding and procurement processes and rules,” Dr. Soyer said in a published interview. “It is not possible to develop realistic and feasible concepts for a complex capability without the participation of industry, who will eventually develop and deliver these solutions.”

One of the companies selected by the NSPA is MDA, headquartered in Ontario. Originally British Columbia-based, it was repatriated from U.S. ownership by a Canadian investor group which is bringing MDA’s decades-long experience with robotics and space-based systems to the table. In a previous incarnation, it had a contract. through Thales Raytheon Systems. to replace NATO’s air command and control system in Europe. 

The others include consortia headed by Boeing and L3Harris Technologies. Boeing’s ABILITI group includes Leonardo, Indra Systems, Thales and Inmarsat while the L3Harris group includes Videns, Musketter Solutions, Hensoldt Sensors, 3SDL, Synergeticon, IBM UK and Deloitte Consulting. Also in the running are Airbus Defence and Space, General Atomics, a Lockheed Martin/Northrop Grumman (LMNG) alliance, and Saab.

Given the E-3A’s track record, Boeing is seen by some as a logical candidate but Airbus, the LMNG alliance and Saab also are potential primes. 
However, Doug Barrie, senior military air analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, expects (with all the usual caveats), that “the most likely outcome is [going to be] U.S., perhaps with some European add-ons.”

That assessment is echoed by Richard Aboulafia, vice-president for analysis with Virginia-based Teal Group. He agrees that a “U.S. prime, and lots of European mandates for local sustainment, support, and upgrade work” is a likely choice by the NSPA.

“The European industrial role is a bit complicated by the fact that Airbus has zero experience here,” Aboulafia added. “Saab certainly can do the job, but GlobalEye (the Swedish company’s maritime and ground surveillance technology in a Bombardier Global 6000) simply doesn’t have the capabilities of a higher-end system, which means Boeing or, just conceivably, Northrop Grumman/Lockheed Martin.”

Barrie sees costs and benefits in both approaches. While a “system of systems” is inherently dependent on connectivity between its elements, he says it would be “less vulnerable overall to kinetic attack.” But while the traditional onboard command-and-control (C2) setup “is more vulnerable to physical attack,” it is less dependent on offboard analysis.

Aboulafia notes that creating a broad “system-of-systems” architecture is complicated. “Creating a system is kind of a given for airborne early warning, but there needs to be a central platform doing the bulk of the heavy lifting,” he says. “Thus, the teams will need to revolve around a platform prime.”

Ken Pole is a FrontLine Contributing Editor.