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NATO Airborne Early Warning and Control

Under Allied Air Command's operational control, the Airborne Early Warning and Control Force operates a fleet of Boeing E-3A 'Sentry' Airborne Warning & Control System aircraft, better known as AWACS. These aircraft provide the Alliance with an immediately available air and maritime surveillance as well as airborne command and control and air battle management capability.

The modified Boeing 707s are easily identifiable from the distinctive radar dome mounted on the fuselage. The E-3A usually operates at an altitude of around 10 km. From this altitude a single E-3A can constantly monitor the airspace within a radius of more than 400 km and can exchange information in near real-time – via digital data links – with ground-based, sea-based and airborne commanders. Three E-3As with overlapping orbits can cover the entire area of Central Europe. By using pulse Doppler radar, an E-3A flying within NATO airspace can distinguish between targets and ground reflections and is therefore able to give early warning of low- or high-flying aircraft operating over the territory of a potential aggressor.

AWACS aircraft can be employed in various roles to support NATO operations. In the Airborne Early Warning and Control role it can provide airspace surveillance and early detection of airborne threats. With its maritime surveillance radar it can also provide support to maritime operations by establishing and providing a radar picture of ongoing activities at sea. The AWACS is also capable of providing control and coordination of airspace and aircraft. In its function as an airborne command and control asset it can provide command and control of NATO air assets during operations and exercises, including Search and Rescue operations.

The NATO Airborne Early Warning and Control Force comprises of a component in Geilenkirchen, Germany. The Force is commanded on a rotational basis by either a United States Air Force or a German Air Force Major General. The deputy commander is a Royal Air Force Air Commodore.

NATO's E-3A fleet is among the most modern of its kind. Since the E-3A Component was established various modernization programmes have been executed for the upgrading of communications, navigation and radar equipment. The Airborne Early Warning and Control Force is the Alliance's largest collaborative venture. A venture that exemplifies NATO's ability to facilitate multinational cooperation and to exploit the benefits of that the pooling of resources can bring.


Currently AWACS aircraft are flying missions in support of NATO's Assurance Measures to its Eastern Allies, introduced in 2014, after Russia's illegal and illegitimate annexation of the Crimean peninsula. The Alliance implemented these Assurance Measures with the goal to demonstrate the collective resolve of Allies, demonstrate the defensive nature of NATO and deter Russia from aggression or the threat of aggression against NATO Allies. They are flexible and scalable in response to fluctuations in the security situation facing the Alliance and send a strong, unambiguous message to the public. A tailored Assurance Measures mission has been implemented over Turkey, following the crisis in Syria, just south of the Turkish border.

AWACS flights in support of these Assurance Measures are to show NATO's presence and demonstrate its readiness to react to members and their populations. Furthermore these surveillance flights are enhancing the Alliance's situational awareness.

AWACS aircraft also conduct flights in contribution to the effort to defeat ISIS, demonstrating NATO's resolve to tackle terrorism and the security challenges emanating from the south. Operating within NATO borders and, if required international airspace, AWACS aircraft provide the surveillance and situational awareness necessary to enhance the overall air picture available to the Global Coalition against the so called 'Islamic State'.

At the Warsaw Summit in 2016, the Alliance established Operation SEA GUARDIAN, a maritime surveillance mission in the Mediterranean to counter terrorism. AWACS aircraft conduct flights in support of this mission, using their maritime surveillance radar.

AWACS explained

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