During the 2016 Warsaw Summit, NATO members officially launched the Alliance Future
Surveillance and Control (AFSC), a project aimed at defining the next generation AWACS capability. In the meantime, the Alliance has launched the final phase of the Final Lifetime Extension Programme, to extend the operational life of the current fleet to 2035.
NATO acquired its own Airborne Early Warning capabilities (AEW) in the 1970s, in response to the need to better detect small, high-speed aircraft at long ranges. According to the operational requirement, the Alliance sought a flexible and mobile system to provide Command and Control (C2) capabilities to air, land and maritime commanders, with an emphasis on the detection of maritime surface targets. The NATO Defence Planning Committee approved the purchase of 18 Boeing E-3A, or NATO Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS), in December 1978. In the following decade, the Alliance established a main operating base in Geilenkirchen, Germany, and upgraded the 40 NATO Air Defence Ground Environment (NADGE).
Since then, the NATO Airborne Early Warning and Control Force (NAEW&C force), the Alliance’s largest collaborative venture, has been taking advantage of AWACS, which is among the rare assets owned and operated by the Alliance, for a wide range of missions. In peacetime, the aircraft can be used for:
- air policing
- non-combatant evacuation operations
- initial entry
- crisis response
- airspace security during important international events
They have been involved in assurance measures for Turkey since 2015 and for the Central and Eastern European Allies since 2014, with a redeployment on and around the territory of NATO Allies in response to Russia’s aggressive actions in Ukraine. AWACS operated by NATO have provided relevant situational awareness during numerous operations, such as in Libya and Afghanistan, and, more recently, have supported the work of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and the counter-terrorism Operation Active Endeavour in the Mediterranean Sea.
Sixteen countries participate in the NAEW&C Programme Management Organisation (NAPMO):
- the Czech Republic
- the Netherlands
- the United States
The United Kingdom also has a limited participation. France, which has an observer role, often assists in coordinated operations, and ensures the interoperability between its E-3F aircraft and the other E-3 fleets.
The E-3A is a modified version of the Boeing 707 equipped with long-range radars and passive sensors, able to detect, track, identify and report potentially hostile aircraft operating at low altitudes, and provide fighter control of Allied aircraft. Each aircraft can fly for about eight and a half hours within a maximum range of 9,250 km at a 30,000-feet service ceiling. It is thus able to cover a surveillance area larger than 120,000 square miles, but air-to-air refuelling capabilities allow for extending the in-theatre endurance. Active surveillance sensors are placed into the distinctive “rotodome” mounted on the fuselage. This structure, which has a 9.1-metre diameter, provides 360° radar coverage out to more than 400 km thanks to its rotation cycle every ten seconds. A flight crew of three and mission crew of 12 operate the aircraft.
In the last 30 years of operations, NATO’s AWACS have evolved according to the changing geopolitical environment. To maintain its key role in air battle management, the fleet required expenditures or commitment of approximately US$13Bn. The Follow-on Upgrade Programme (FUP) enhanced the situational awareness’ support for cooperating units and replaced analogue cockpits with digital technology. An update completed in 2018 adapted the communication system to current and expected air traffic management requirements, including the ongoing development of communication systems using Internet Protocol (IP).
The fleet is currently undergoing its final modernisation programme worth US$1Bn, intended to extend the system’s operational life until 2035. The programme, awarded to Boeing as prime contractor, concerns upgrades to the NE-3A’s data link and voice communications capabilities, and enhanced Wide-Band Beyond Line-of-Sight airborne networking capability.
The AFSC Initiative
With the E-3 fleet expected to retire soon after 2035, NATO members have had to rethink their AWACS capabilities, which have become an indispensable tool in a wide range of peace and wartime operations. The Final Lifetime Extension and the Alliance Future Surveillance and Control (AFSC) initiative, launched in 2016 with the participation of the 30 NATO members is aimed at defining the best options for the post-2035 period according to high-level military requirements.
In 2017, the North Atlantic Council (NAC) gave the Luxembourg-based NATO Support and Procurement Agency (NSPA) the responsibility for the relevant R&D. The AFSC project office, created within the NSPA, was provided with a €118.2M budget to manage the development phases and to liaise with the relevant stakeholders within the Alliance. Studies are aimed at supporting the Alliance and member countries, either individually or in groups, in their procurement choices concerning next generation systems. The first phase of the “Concept Stage” was launched in the same year to evaluate the new technologies, and declared as completed, on schedule and on budget, in 2018. It resulted in four “Small Case Studies” (SCS) that helped to define the basic architecture and requirements.
Following the swift launch of a second phase, six high-level concept proposals developed by as many consortia were presented in 2020:
- Airbus Defence and Space
- Boeing, with Indra, Inmarsat, Leonardo, and Thales (also known as ABILITI)
- General Atomics
- L3Harris with 3SDL, Deloitte Consulting, Hensoldt Sensors, IBM, Musketeer Solutions, Synergeticon and Videns
- Lockheed Martin
- MDA Systems, with General Dynamics Mission System
While NATO is evaluating and refining the concepts presented, three high-level conceptual approaches have been identified for further analysis through separate Risk Reduction and Feasibility Studies (RRFS), launched in mid-2021. The evaluations for the shortlisted concepts are expected to start in 2023, to identify the new developments eventually needed according to the capabilities already available. This will result in a technical concept, to be translated into the Programme Establishment, which will mark the final phase of the Concept Stage.
SCAF and TEMPEST
The Alliance has not expressed any detailed operational requirement yet, but it is already possible to identify some likely features. The next generation platform will likely be a completely different effector compared to the existing E-3A SENTRY for at least two reasons.
Firstly, the number of assets will be reduced from the existing f14. Secondly, the new platforms intended to assure AWACS missions will have to be interoperable with legacy systems, but also with future ones, intended to operate in high intensity missions, mainly against peer/near-peer enemies. As per these considerations, the adoption of a system-of-systems approach is likely.
In line with the requirements for the next generation fighter programmes SCAF and TEMPEST, the AFSC will probably consist of a main vehicle able to coordinate a range of assets (aerial, digital, naval, space- and land-based) devoted to intelligence gathering. Its main missions will be:
- the gathering, analysis, and distribution of relevant information on potential threats to allow for their identification, localisation and tracking
- the creation of a battlespace situational awareness of a common, accurate, integrated and constantly up-to-date operational picture
- the control, coordination, monitoring and evaluation of its own assets and resources to eventually tackle the enemy’s activities in the relevant area of action
To reach these objectives, the aircraft must be able to carry out multi-domain surveillance and control missions in all operational scenarios (authorised, contested, denied). State-of-the-art wide-band communications (such as satellites, VHF, datalink, etc.) and data storage systems will have to provide the most adequate tactical situational awareness to allied C2 centres. To be more effective, the platform needs high survivability (partially granted by the distributed system’s architecture) and auto protection features, in addition to a high level of modularity.
The NSPA is extensively researching in numerous domains, such as systems architectures, sensors, IA and automation, information sharing, and cybersecurity, and exploring possible structures and combinations for the system-of-systems.
Future Perspectives for AWACS
With the final decision on its features expected in two years, it is unlikely that a future NATO AWACS based on brand new technology will be ready in time for the phase-out of the E-3A SENTRY. Some options are available that will avoid a capability gap that would have a significant impact on NATO. The Alliance might finally decide to award Boeing a new, expensive contract, to further extend the operational life of the existing fleet, or purchase Boeing E-7A WEDGETAILS as the UK and Turkey have already done. Should NATO decide to go ahead with the current approach and acquire disrupting technologies on schedule, the best solution would be to purchase an open architecture allowing for plugging in new technologies.
Such an option will allow NATO to wait for a more mature technology while looking at the progress of the TEMPEST and FCAS programmes, crucial for interoperability. The two are still under development, and the lack of full political agreement among partners on some features might still put their original schedule at risk. Using existing UAVs as platform might be a possibility. However, here again, the reticence of some members, this time on the spectrum of their missions, might complicate a deal. The German decision to scrap the purchase of Northrop Grumman RQ-4 GLOBAL HAWK over possible security risks and disruptions to its civilian air traffic is an interesting example.
Modernising the AWACS Fleet
The modernisation of the AWACS fleet after 2035 will be crucial not only for NATO, but also for the broader defence of Europe. France and the UK are also struggling with the renovation of their ageing fleets. Paris will have to replace its four E3-F AWACS by 2035.
However, the Loi de programmation militaire (military programming law) for 2019-2025 mentions launching studies for their replacement by that time, suggesting that the country will likely face a capability gap. London has recently announced that it expects a two-year-long capability gap between the phase-out of its E-3D SENTRY, expected this year, and the entering into service of the three Boeing E-7A WEDGETAILS due to be received in 2023. In the past, the UK used to pledge its assets to NATO AEW&C Force’s assets in case of need. For the next two years though, the Royal Air Force will have to rely on NATO aircraft if needed.
Maintaining a high-paced political schedule will therefore be crucial for completing the programme on time, but recent events such as the rushed withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan are exacerbating political tensions among allies and relaunching (again) the calls for more European strategic autonomy. NATO’s European members expected the Biden Administration to mark a radical change compared to the Trump presidency concerning US engagement abroad. However, the cancellation of Australia’s deal to purchase French submarines to finally buy American, and the creation of AUKUS, the new alliance between Canberra, Washington, and London to deal with the rising threat posed by Beijing’s policies in the South China Sea and wider region, have renewed tensions with Paris, and more generally raised concern among European allies.
Moreover, President Biden has recently reaffirmed that the US’ future military engagements abroad will be limited to what is strictly necessary. Already in 2019, when he defined NATO as “brain dead”, French President Macron tried to convince the Allies that establishing a real European strategic autonomy was the best way to protect and promote EU interests abroad. Three years later, an autonomous European defence is far from being realised and EU investments in the defence sector have not worked as a bottom-up driver for a more integrated EU defence policy.
The Path Ahead
The political uncertainty following the recent German elections and the upcoming elections in France might disrupt the EU’s political agenda as well and may even disrupt common European defence efforts. The French EU rotating presidency in the first semester of 2022 might represent the last chance to accelerate defence collaboration. Returning to AWACS, these capabilities are neither included in the programmes already approved under the PESCO framework, nor financed under the European Defence Fund. The lack of proprietary solutions in Europe makes the launch of a European-led project in this domain unlikely. Regarding these considerations, the outcome of the ongoing political tension among some NATO members will be a crucial element vis-à-vis the completion of the future AFCS initiative.