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Airborne Early Warning Control


Role: Airborne Early Warning & Control (AEW&C) aircraft are designed to enhance the situational awareness of friendly aircraft by being a dedicated provider of the battlefield image. Considered an essential force multiplier, AEW&C aircraft increases the effectiveness of partner aircraft in establishing air dominance. In other words, the AEW&C is capable of detecting enemy forces at vast distances (some up to 250 miles away) and functioning as an airborne networking node for friendly forces. Fighters working alongside AEW&C aircraft are able to shut down their own radar systems and depend on the AEW&C’s data, allowing them to move more stealthily through the environment. With these capacities, these aircraft can serve as an airborne Command, Control, and Battle Management (C2BM) center. AEW&C aircraft with the most complete information, gives instructions to other aircraft specialized to carry out specific functions. For example, an AEW&C identifies an incoming missile that fighter’s radar systems are still unable to sense, then alerts the fighter and commands an action. The AEW&C can also direct friendly forces to their target locations.

An AWE&C can be equipped with a variety of radar functions which can be designated for a specific purpose. Some notable technologies include the Multirole Electronically Scanned Array (MESA), developed by Northrop Grumman which provides air and surface coverage, integrated identification friend or foe (IFF), and track beam capabilities. The AESA (active electronically scanned array) radar actively generates a signal and waits for an echo off of its beam. AESA can form multiple beams across frequencies, thus covering a much wider expanse of territory than other radar designs. The Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) is a specific system on the E-3 Sentry developed by Boeing that contains a rotating radar used to track threats over airspace. Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar Systems (JSTARS) is a system used to track mobile targets on the ground.

Models in Service:

United States Air Force (USAF), United States Navy (USN)

E-2 Hawkeye USN E-2C 67 Northrop Grumman With the military’s longest running active airframe, the Hawkeye serves in a number of roles as a carrier-protecting AEW and airborne battlespace management aircraft. Fitted with a 24 foot diameter circular radome containing a AN/APA-171 antenna atop its fuselage, the Hawkeye can see objects from distances greater than 550 km and with AN/APS-145 radar, can track over 2000 targets at once and intercept 40 hostile targets. The newest upgrade E-2D Advanced Hawkeye, which will eventually replace all E-2Cs, has been equipped with a new AN/APY-9 solid-state, UHF ESA adaptive dection system (ADS-18) radar.
E-3 Sentry USAF E-3B 22 Boeing Known as AWACS (airborne warning and control system), the Sentry is a modified Boeing 707/320 with a rotating (at 6 revolutions per minute) radome holding AN/APY-1 and AN/APY-2 passive electronically scanned array (PESA) radar combined with an IFF (identification friend or foe) system. Using a high Pulse Repetition Frequency (PRF) pulse Doppler waveforms on its AWACS, the radome is able to survey over 500,000 square miles of territory in ten second intervals and distinguish relevant targets. The Sentry’s radar is also multi-modal with surveillance capabilities to address a variety of conditions. Their six modes include: pulse Doppler nonelevation scan (PDNES – air to surface), beyond the horizon (BTH – when ground clutter is at the horizon), interleaved (simultaneous PDES and BTH or PDNES and maritime), pulse Doppler elevation scan (PDES – for gauging the elevation of the target), maritime (short pulse for a cluttered sea surface), and passive (when radar is blocked, subsectors can continue to receive information). With these advanced imaging technologies, the E-3 provides a picture of conditions in the air during an operation.
E-3C 10
E-4 USAF E-4B 4 Boeing An advanced airborne command post, the E-4B is a “Doomsday Plane”, a secondary command center in case of catastrophe on ground control. One E-4B is usually airborne every twelve hours with another assembled for action within five minutes. Hardened to withstand electromagnetic pulse from nuclear detonations and equipped with communications uplinked to a global satellite grid, the plane will carry the president, members of the cabinet, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and has three decks of workstations for battle management specialists.
E-6 Mercury USN E-6B 16 Boeing An airborne relay center and C3 (Command, Control, and Communications) operator, the Mercury serves in the ‘Looking Glass’ role as a radio repeater transmitting information to ballistic missile submarines for the Global Operations Center at Offutt Base in Nebraska. The E-6 is part of the TACAMO (Take Charge and Move Out) system, a set of emergency C3 links between command posts and nuclear forces in the event of nuclear war. Also known as the “Doomsday Plane”, the E-6 will assume command of submarine-based nuclear forces should Offutt Base become incapacitated. The Mercury also has an onboard ALCS (airborne launch control system) which can control land-based inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
E-8 Joint STARS USAF E-8C 16 Northrop Grumman The joint surveillance and target attack radar system (JSTARS) is an airborne support of an operational command and control system JSTARS’s primary mission is providing commanders with ground surveillance information by acquiring an image of ground conditions (such as formations, movements, and other dispositions of an opponent’s forces). The E-8C contains a canoe-shaped radome beneath its fuselage which houses a side-looking APY-7 PESA antenna. JSTARS can also be fitted with a camera (the MS-177, a variant of the U-2 spy plane’s SYERS camera) to provide on-the-spot identification confirmation.
E-11A USAF E-11A 4 Northrop Grumman Based off the business jet Bombardier Global Express, the E-11A is equipped with a Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN). BACN is an Internet Protocol (IP)-based connectivity network that allows integrated communications across multiple platforms – including both civil and tactical equipment – in the field (aboard aircraft in-flight). BACN extends communications range and functions as a bridge between radio frequencies and diverse systems (i.e. enabling communication between a civilian cellular phone and a pilot within a jet, or between aircraft platforms with incompatible communication systems).

Current Events:

The E-2D Advanced Hawkeye Aircraft (E-2D AHE) is currently replacing the E-2C aircraft with procurement projected until fiscal year 2023. The E-2D is equipped with advanced radar to detect threat aircraft and cruise missiles in overland, littoral, and open ocean environments. $9.9 billion has been budgeted for fiscal year 2014 for 30 units, with an estimated $11.7 billion for 55 more until 2023.