The airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft is a high value asset that not many countries can afford.
As a commanding officer of an AEW squadron recently told the author, “Our aircraft can peer hundreds of miles into our adversary’s air space, giving us notice of their intentions. We can watch all their aircraft’s manoeuvres to provide us with ample opportunity to scramble our assets into the air.”
As India and Pakistan went close to all-out war on 27 February 2019, we saw airborne early warning assets from both sides playing a significant part in the unfolding drama. When the IAF’s Air Vice-Marshall RGK Kapoor was responding to denials that the IAF had shot down an F-16 in early March, he responded by showing a declassified radar track from one of the IAF’s AEW aircraft. He also provided two images, believed to have come from an A-50Ei PHALCON, of three Pakistan Air Force fighter formations being tracked. One made up of JF-17s and the other two were F-16s. One of the jets in the latter group disappeared from the screen, which the IAF claim was because it crashed. The PAF denied that they had lost a VIPER and US sources claimed all the F-16s were still in the inventory.
Having scoured the adversary’s airspace, airbourne early warning and control (AEWC) platforms can gather information from a wide variety of sources, analyse them, distributing them to other air and surface assets. They control the tactical battle space with a variety of tactical options on offer. Monitoring the movements of your foe’s aircraft, ships or vehicles is one. They can also offer command and control, provide direction for fighter aircraft, surface combatants and land-based elements, as well as support aircraft such as tankers and intelligence platforms. Alternatively, they can distinguish between allied and enemy forces to reduce the chances of ‘blue-on-blue’ incidents.
Recent AEW Acquisitions
With more new sophisticated threats emerging from both Russia and China, it is not surprising that both the RAF and US Navies have in recent months bolstered their respective AEW forces. On 22 March 2019, the then UK Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson signed a US$1.98Bn deal to purchase five Boeing E-7 WEDGETAIL AEWC aircraft to replace the RAF’s current fleet of five E-3D SENTRY AEW1s. The contract had been expected for some time. Williamson said: “The E-7 provides a technological edge in an increasingly complex battlespace, allowing our ships and aircraft to track and target adversaries more effectively than ever. We will operate ‘state-of-the-art’ F-35 jets and world-class Type-26 warships, and this announcement will help us work even more closely [with our allies] to tackle the global threats we face.”
Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier also stated: “This world-class capability, already proven with our Royal Australian Air Force partners, will significantly enhance our ability to deliver decisive airborne command and control and builds on the reputation of our E3D SENTRY Force.”
The E-7 is based on a standard Boeing 737 NG airliner modified to carry a sophisticated Northrop Grumman active electronically-scanned radar mounted in a ‘Top-Hat’ configuration on its roof, which can cover up to four million square kilometres over a ten-hour period. Modification of the aircraft will be carried out in the UK at the Marshall Aerospace and Defence Group in Cambridge leading to the entry into RAF service by the early 2020s at RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire.
On 11 April, Northrop Grumman announced that it had been awarded the contract to deliver an additional 24 E-2D Advanced Hawkeye aircraft to the US Navy. The deal, valued at US$3.2Bn, includes an option for nine additional foreign military sales aircraft. Production of the 24 US Navy aircraft, funded by the five-year contract, is expected to be complete in 2026. The US Navy’s Captain Keith Hash, of the E-2/C-2 Airborne Tactical Data Systems Programme Office (PMA-231) Manager, said of the deal, “This is a critical element in providing the next generation of world-class command and control aircraft to the fleet and helps us fulfil our mission to increase US naval power at sea by providing our fleet the information they need to accurately plan and win the fight today and tomorrow.”
The carrier-based E-2D with its powerful AN/APY-9 radar is the US Navy’s airborne early warning and command and control aircraft system. Generally, the small twin turboprop provides an expanded battlespace awareness for aircraft carriers and their strike groups. Northrop Grumman claims the E-2D is a two-generation leap in radar technology, allowing it to work with ship-, air- and land-based combat systems to track and defeat air, ship and cruise missiles at an extended range.
UK’s AEW Helicopters
During the 1982 Falklands War, the Royal Navy did not have an airborne early warning aircraft, having retired the Fairy Gannet AEW in 1978. They paid for it by suffering the loss of nearly 100 sailors and soldiers that were killed on board six ships attacked and sunk by the Argentine navy and air force.
It taught the Fleet Air Arm a costly lesson and made the rest of the world’s military ensure they provided their battle ships and aircraft carriers with the best protection. Until September 2018, when the FAA’s SEA KING ASAC7s were retired, its main AEW role was to detect low-flying attack aircraft as well as the interception and over-the-horizon targeting for surface-launched weapon systems. The ASaC7 could simultaneously track up to 400 targets.
The new generation CROWSNEST MERLINs are now going through test and evaluation before being delivered. The UK ordered ten CROWSNEST systems from Lockheed Martin on 16 January 2017, which are modular kits that can be fitted to any of the 30 MERLIN HM2s operated by the FAA. Lockheed Martin, as the prime contractor for CROWSNEST, is integrating the Thales system, an updated and improved version of the CERBERUS tactical sensor suite, which was in service with the ASaC7 helicopter. The design comprises a single mechanically scanned radar head, to provide a 360 degree visibility from the system, which is fitted to the underside of the helicopter that can then fold up to the side of the aircraft when not in operation.
The Chief Executive Officer of the MoD’s Defence Equipment and Support body, Tony Douglas, said in January 2017, “CROWSNEST will play a key role in protecting the Royal Navy’s future fleet acting as the eyes and ears for the new QUEEN ELIZABETH class aircraft carriers. This ‘state-of-the-art’ project will demonstrate how we are providing world-leading, innovative equipment to our Armed Forces.”
The official maiden flight took place on 28 March, when the trials aircraft flew from Leonardo’s Westland facility to commence aero-mechanical flight trials. Ross Powlesland, Managing Director at Military Solutions, Lockheed Martin UK said at the time, “The objective of this phase of work is to assess the flight envelope and handling qualities of the aircraft with the external equipment fitted. A series of flight trials will take place throughout 2019.”
In early February, the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), which operates six E-7A WEDGETAILs ended its Operation Okra deployment to Minhad Air Base in the United Arab Emirates. No 2 Squadron, home-based at RAAF Base Williamtown, New South Wales, has been flying from the UAE base as part of Australia’s Air Task Group (ATG) since 1 October 2014. The E-7A WEDGETAIL can track airborne and maritime targets simultaneously, with a variety of sensors and sources, analyse them, distributing them to other assets. The systems on board include HF, VHF, UHF, Link-11, Link-16 and UHF SATCOM while electronic warfare self-protection includes infra-red countermeasures, chaffs and flares.
A senior RAAF officer, Air Cdre Akren who was heading up the ATG in early 2018 said, “The picture from the E-7 is a higher quality picture than other AWACS such as the USAF, RAF and French E-3s, and it can navigate through the picture better in terms of working out who’s who in the zoo, so speak.”
Three air forces are today flying the E-7 – Australia (6), South Korea (4) and Turkey (4).
The most popular AEW aircraft today is still the Boeing E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS), despite the first examples being delivered in the mid-70s. Today, there are five customers operating around 50 active aircraft include the USAF (24), NATO (15), French Air Force (4), RAF (5) and the Royal Saudi Air Force (5).
Most of the E-3s have been through regular upgrades to overcome obsolescence and to remain up to date with new emerging threats that currently exist. Under a US$2.7Bn upgrade, the USAF is upgrading 24 E-3s with a new more sophisticated RED HAT Linux-based system to replace the antiquated 1970s/80s systems. Development of the E-3G Block 40/45 upgrade started in 2003, and includes the fusing of air, land and sea tracks into one single integrated sensor display, in line with most modern AEW systems.
An E-3G was deployed into combat for the first time in November 2015, to Al Udeid, Qatar, where, like the RAAF E-7Ts flying out of Al Minhad, it was used to co-ordinate the multinational air campaign against Daesh while also keeping track of Russian aircraft operating over Russia without using their Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) transponders.
NATO is also upgrading 14 of its E-3s with new flight decks and avionics suites, which will replace its 1970s era analogue systems. Boeing was awarded a US$257M upgrade contract in 2014 to integrate five full-colour digital glass displays with customisable radar, navigation and engine data. The work was started on the pattern aircraft in the US during August 2016, before the work was transferred to Airbus at Manching, Germany. The last aircraft was delivered on December 2018.
In May 2017, Boeing announced that it had completed the Radar System Improvement Programme (RSIP) on the Royal Saudi E-3 AWACS fleet, which began as a joint US/NATO development programme. The kit, build by Northrop Grumman, includes a new radar computer, a radar control maintenance panel, and electrical and mechanical software and hardware.
Keith Burns, Saudi AWACS Programme Manager for Boeing said in May 2017, “The modernised software, multiple radar nodes and overall enhanced operation make this the most significant upgrade to the AWACS radar since it was developed in the 1970s.”
As one Boeing engineer put it to the author, “The main difference between the WEDGETAIL and the AWACS is you are not limited or defined by a 360° rotator. You can configure how much power you want to put into your radar reach; it is configurable to the mission. The integrated IFF and radar functionality also allows the system to reach further than other systems into the battlespace to shape greater situational awareness in the battlespace. You can put the energy in the mission area where you have the highest priority.”
Japan, the only country to have purchased the Boeing 767 as an AEW&C, operates four Boeing E-767s and despite initial problems they have now settled in. They are being augmented by four E-2D HAWKEYEs, at a cost of US$1.7Bn, which will include associated equipment, spares and logistical support. A US$151.3M order for the first aircraft was contracted on 12 November 2015. Egypt operates seven E-2C HAWKEYE 200s, France 3 E-2C HAWKEYE 2000s, Japan two E-2Ds plus two more on order and a requirement for another five, Taiwan (Republic of China) operates six E-2K HAWKEYEs and the US Navy has 36 E-2Ds and another 39 on order.
A new threat to US dominance in the AEW market comes from Saab’s GLOBALEYE. The Global 6000 mounted with a new generation ERIEYE ER radar won a US$1.27Bn contract from the UAE Government in November 2015 for two aircraft, which was increased to a third aircraft worth a further US$235M in February 2017. The GLOBALEYE beat off competition from the Boeing E-7A and Northrop Grumman E-2D, which had been working on a deal for more than ten years.
Matts Wicksell, the Saab GlobalEye Programme Manager told me about the capabilities the new platform can offer, “We can see extremely small subjects, like rib boats, and jet-skis from the air and we can see stealthy targets at a longer distance.” This has been made possible because mounted on top of the airframe is the S-band active electronically scanned array (AESA) ERIEYE ER (Extended Range) multi-mode radar. Saab claims it has a detection range, which has been improved by over 70%, compared with the previous generation model, to more than 300 miles (450 km). Augmenting the ERIEYE is a Leonardo SEASPRAY 7500 maritime radar, which can track up to 300 targets, and a STAR SAFIRE 380HD Electro Optical/Infra Red (EO/IR) turret. The jet must descend to around 5,000 ft to allow the operators in the rear cabin to focus on anything of interest.
With eight countries flying ERIEYE systems on three different platforms, Saab has the biggest network of AEW operators. They are Sweden (two Saab 340s), Brazil (three EMB 145/R-99s) Greece (four EMB-145H), Mexico (one EMB 145SA), Pakistan (three Saab 2000s plus two on order), Saudi Arabia (two x Saab 2000s) and the UAE (two Saab 340 with three Bombardier 6000 GLOBALEYEs on order).
The Israel Air Space Force operates four heavily modified Gulfstream 550s for the AEW mission. The Eitam is fitted with the EL/W-2085 multi-sensor suite, which provides a full 360-degree coverage, with its narrower field S-band antennas on the rear and forward spheres of the aircraft, as well as wider-scoping L-band antennas mounted on the sides of the G550 CAEW fuselage. It has a ten-hour endurance and a 7,000 km (5,500 miles) range. The most recent customer for the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) Gulfstream 550 is the Italian Air force, which took delivery of two jets in 2016/17 in a US$750M deal made in 2012.
The Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) bought four Conformal Airborne Early Warning (CAEW) configured Gulfstream 550s for US$1Bn from IAI Elta in May 2007. The CAEW, with its EL/W-2085 sensor suite, has revolutionised the way the RSAF carries out its AEW role after flying the E-2C HAWKEYE for 23 years.
India and Pakistan
The Indian Air Force purchased three Embraer EMB 145s in a US$208M deal, leading to the first delivery on 14 February 2017. They are fitted with an indigenous Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO) AEW&C system known as NETRA. Equipped with a 240-degree coverage radar and a 240 mile range to detect, identify and classify threats. They work alongside three AEW&C configured Ilyushin Il-76s known as the A-50EhI, purchased under a US$1.1Bn deal, which saw the original airframes modified with the IAI EL/W-2090 AEW&C PHALCON radar system by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and its subsidiary Elta at Tel Aviv-Ben Gurion Airport. These were delivered between 2009-2011. Another pair are believed to be on order. The radar is able to track multiple fast moving targets at a range of up to 250 miles (400 km), and a communication suite, which guarantees the secure voice, and data links to air, ground and sea.
The IAF is now close to clearing the way for the acquisition of two Airbus A330 that will be configured with DRDO’s indigenous system. DRDO Chairperson, S Christopher told reporters at Aero India 2017 in February, “the system mounted on the Airbus, will have 360-degree surveillance and a coverage area of 300 km.”
The Pakistan Air Force operates the ERIEYE system mounted on the Saab 2000, augmenting four ZDK-03 Korakoram EAGLEs delivered between 2010 and 2012. The aircraft are Shaanxi Y-9G airframes with a dome on top. China Electronics Technology Corporation (CETC) has upgraded the four Shaanxi Y-9G airframes, fitting the AESA radar in the dome. At Zhuhai Air Show in 2018, CETC displayed two different Y-9 AEW&C aircraft. A KJ-500/ZDK-06 with a dome on top appeared in the static display, while two models of the same K/JE-03 stood at the stand, with the balanced beam radar, but presented in different colour schemes. Like the event in 2016, a video also was played showing a more flexible means of attack and defence in the newer ZDK-06. Working with command centres, fighters, UAVs and navy ships, the aircraft’s data-link provided the information it was detecting over long-ranges, down-linked the aerial picture and up-linked data from ground-based air defences. The ZDK-06 is also said to offer mid-course guidance, updating a missile’s trajectory en-route to a mobile target.
Obviously, AEW plays an extremely important role within the military, which is the reason that the systems and aircraft operating all over the world come in all shapes and sizes. They provide countries with a sense of situational awareness in their would-be adversary’s ‘back-yard’, an opportunity to defend against any possible aggression, and strike back almost immediately.
Alan Warnes is a journalist specialising in military aviation and has travelled to over 60 countries researching articles and taking action photos for his work. For 12 years, he was the Editor of AirForces Monthly magazine in the UK, before opting to go freelance. He has also written several books, including two on the current Pakistan Air Force in 2008 and 2017, and, most recently, on 100 years of Aero Vodochody.