Brunssum, The Netherlands – It is a rainy, dark morning in the middle of September at Geilenkirchen Airbase, Germany. Although only six a.m., a couple of eager early morning risers are already parking their cars in front of the building of the NATO AWZCS detachment. AWACS stands for Airborne Early Warning and Control System and is NATO's flying radar, or eye in the sky. What will follow during the day is, in many aspects, similar to a flight with a civilian airliner but, in numerous ways, it will differ significantly. Two members of NATO's Joint Force Command, Brunssum, a NATO operational headquarters around ten kilometres away from Geilenkirchen, are enjoying the unique opportunity to be part of an E-3A AWACS mission.
E-3A AWACS parked at Geilenkirchen airbase. Picture by OR-9 Leo Roos, JFCBS PAO
Fit for Purpose
Colonel Pawel Lewandowski and Lieutenant Colonel Bogumil Szynaka, both from the Polish Army, have never been aboard an E-3A before but will shortly be part of a special NATO mission that is conducted regularly in the airspace above Europe. NATO and JFC Brunssum are closely monitoring all events that take place on land, at sea and in the air in this part of Europe. The E-3A, with its unique capabilities, provides a platform that is perfect to serve this purpose. The two Polish guests from JFC Brunssum will be witnessing this today. In addition, the E-3A Component Commander, Brigadier General Stefan Neumann, is also joining the flight. He is using the opportunity to talk to his personnel and refresh his awareness of extant processes and procedures.
Colonel Pawel Lewandowski and Lieutenant Colonel Bogumil Szynaka are introduced to the E-3A. Picture by OR-9 Leo Roos, JFCBS PAO
Similar, but Different – the E-3A
As the plane waits for its crew, the two guests and the General to arrive, it gets lighter enabling the first differences between a commercial aircraft and an E-3A to become visible to the curious observer. The E-3A is a modified Boeing 707. First and foremost, the distinctive radar dome mounted on the fuselage stands out. Next, there are no passenger windows. After a closer look, other modifications such as small pods, antennas and containers, can be seen attached to the nose and sides of the plane. The radar dome is the most vital element for the functionality of the aircraft, aside from the highly skilled multinational crew who are now boarding.
Crew and guests boarding the E-3A. Picture by OR-9 Leo Roos, JFCBS PAO
The Eye in the Sky
The E-3A is an airborne battle management command and control asset. This means it is an eye in the sky, giving NATO the opportunity to gather specific, time-critical information and data. This can be the foundation for decisions of NATO leaders and commanders. Simply put, the E-3A identifies who is in the air, on the ground, and on the sea, and has the ability to share these observations in seconds via digital, secure links.
As the engines start and the various systems are checked and activated, Colonel Lewandowski and Lieutenant Colonel Szynaka are getting a quick tour throughout the interior. Unlike a commercial airliner with its rows of seats, the E-3A has several workstations with monitors, keyboards and dozens of buttons and switches. Each station has its own purpose. The radar operator explains the functionality of the radar after a take-off that feels very similar to a normal flight. The four engines of the E-3A provide enough thrust to quickly lift the plane to its cruising altitude.
The E-3A has several workstations with monitors, keyboards and dozens of buttons and switches. Picture by OR-9 Leo Roos, JFCBS PAO
A Unique NATO Capability – A Flying Radar
The E-3A usually flies at a similar cruising altitude to that of a civilian airliner. From this height, a single E-3A can monitor the airspace within a radius of more than 400 km. The aircraft can distinguish between friendly, Allied and other military forces, and has the capability to provide early warnings when and as necessary. One E-3A can cover 312,000 km², which is the size of a country such as Poland. Three E-3As in overlapping flight patterns can provide complete coverage of Central Europe.
Multinational Teamwork Makes the Dream a Reality
Crew members come from various NATO nations. This is an example of the Alliance standing together as one, where Allies contribute, together, to the successful fulfilment of a given task. NATO's AWACS fleet has been continuously upgraded and modernised over time in order to be able to meet the challenges of today's security environment. This sends a clear message of readiness, determination and unity to any potential adversary.
Crew members come from various NATO nations working together aboard an E-3A AWACS. Picture by OR-9 Leo Roos, JFCBS PAO
An E-3A day can be very long especially as the aircraft has the ability to refuel whilst in flight. This procedure takes a lot of training and requires the full attention of the flight crew. On this mission, several training runs are conducted with a tanker aircraft in order to polish/refresh the necessary skills. To take fuel on board whilst in flight, the E-3A has to be precisely steered at a very close distance behind the tanker aircraft. A flying boom, deployed from the tanker, is then used to transfer fuel from one aircraft to the other.
E-3A AWACS manoeuvring towards tanker aircraft to refuel. Picture by OR-9 Leo Roos, JFCBS PAO
End of Mission
After many hours, the mission eventually ends. The landing is again similar to that of a commercial airliner. However, unlike a commercial aircraft that flies for economic reasons, NATO's E-3A fleet serve a different purpose. The E-3A enhances NATO's readiness and, by doing so, contributes to the security of Alliance member states. For Colonel Lewandowski and Lieutenant Colonel Szynaka, the day provided many insights that have broadened their knowledge and will stay with them for years to come.
E-3A Component Commander, Brigadier General Stefan Neumann joined the flight to talk to his personnel and refresh his awareness of extant processes and procedures. Picture by OR-9 Leo Roos, JFCBS PAO