NATO’s Airborne Early Warning & Control Program Management Agency has signed a $1 billion Final Lifetime Extension Programme (FLEP) contract with Boeing to upgrade 14 E-3A Sentry Airborne Warning and Control (AWACS) aircraft to allow them to remain in service until 2035. The upgrade forms part of a wider NATO strategy to counter new and growing threats, and will be funded by the 16 allied nations participating in the NATO AWACS program. The contract was signed on November 27 by Boeing International president Michael Arthur and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at Melsbroek, the military enclave of Brussels airport.
The FLEP upgrade will ensure that NATO remains at the leading edge of technology, providing the E-3A with sophisticated new communications and networking capabilities, including new Have Quick radios, new encryption equipment, new operator consoles, upgraded mission computing, expanded data capacity, and increased bandwidth for satellite communications. Ground systems, including the mission training center and the mission planning and evaluation system, will also be upgraded.
Program management and engineering design will be undertaken by Boeing in Oklahoma City, while installation and modification work will be completed in Europe. The upgrade work will be combined with the normal planned technical maintenance schedule to minimize the impact on operational availability and will involve a number of companies, including Northrop Grumman, Airbus, Kongsberg, Leonardo, Thales, and Indra.
NATO originally acquired 18 E-3As, which were registered in Luxembourg (which had no air force) and delivered from January 1982. The aircraft were operated by Nos. 1, 2 and 3 Squadrons of the NATO Airborne Early Warning and Control Force (NAEW&C Force) E-3A Component, at Geilenkirchen air base in Germany. No. 3 Squadron was disbanded in 2015.
There are forward-operating bases (FOBs) at Trapani in Italy, Aktion in Greece, and Konya in Turkey, and with a further forward-operating location (FOL) at Ørland, Norway. Aircrews are drawn from 18 different NATO nations. The UK’s dwindling fleet of E-3D aircraft forms an integral part of the NAEW&C Force as the E-3D Component, while France has an observer role and ensures that its E-3F aircraft remain interoperable with NATO’s E-3 fleet, with which it often conducts co-ordinated operations.
The NATO E-3A Component has 16 E-3As on charge, having lost one in an accident and having retired another in 2015 for spares recovery. The latter aircraft had accumulated 22,206 flight hours and was due to undergo a costly six-year cycle Depot Level Maintenance (DLM) inspection. The long-term fleet consists of 14 aircraft, which have been fitted with modernized flight decks under the so-called Dragon upgrade (Diminishing manufacturing sources Replacement of Avionics for Global Operations and Navigation).
Stoltenberg said that NATO is already planning to replace the AWACS in 2035 and that such a replacement will include “many of the technologies we are talking about today, such as autonomous systems, artificial intelligence, and big data.”
NATO launched the Alliance Future Surveillance and Control (AFSC) initiative in 2016, involving and funded by all 29 NATO allies. The AFSC concept stage included a series of studies evaluating new technologies and exploring a system-of-systems approach. Such a system could include air, ground, and space systems, manned and unmanned, all networked together to share information. The first phase of the AFSC Concept Stage was completed on schedule in December 2018 and will inform NATO decision-making when the time comes to acquire new systems.