In the early 1970s, studies directed by NATOs major military commanders
showed that an airborne early warning (AEW) radar system would significantly enhance
the Alliances air defence capability. In December 1978, the Defence Planning Committee
signed a memorandum of understanding to buy and operate a NATO-owned AEW system.
By this decision, the member nations embarked on NATOs largest commonly funded acquisition program.
The NATO Airborne Early Warning & Control Force (NAEW&CF) was established in January 1980,
and granted full NATO Command headquarters status by the DPC on 17 October 1980. Force Command
Headquarters is located with Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) in Mons,
Belgium and is commanded either by a US Air Force or German Air Force Major General on a rotational basis.
The Deputy Force Commander is always a RAF Air Commodore. Force Command reports directly to the
Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR).
Today, NAEW&CF consists of two operational elements called Components:
First is the multinational NATO E-3A Component at
Geilenkirchen, Germany, operating 17 Boeing NATO E-3A aircraft.
The NATO E-3A squadrons are manned by integrated international crews from 16 nations
(Belgium, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland,
Portugal, Romenia, Spain, Turkey and the United States). The E-3As have been operating from the main operating
base (MOB) at Geilenkirchen, since February 1982. Forward operating bases (FOBs) are located at Trapani, Italy;
Aktion, Greece; and Konya, Turkey. There is also a Forward operating location (FOL) at
Second is the Airborne Early Warning
Squadron Number 8 of the British Royal Air Force (RAF) at Waddington (United Kingdom),
with seven Boeing E-3D aircraft. The E-3D Component, is manned only by RAF personnel and
its Main Operating Base is RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire, U.K.
The E-3A/D normally operates at an altitude of 30,000 feet. When established at this altitude a single E-3A/D can continuously survey the airspace within a radius of more than 400 km of the aircraft and, using digital data links, exchange information with ground and sea-based commanders. Thus, an E-3A/D positioned well within friendly airspace can provide early warning information on both low-flying and high altitude aircraft operating over the territory of a potential aggressor. While the Force’s principal role is air surveillance, it can also conduct tactical battle management functions such as support and control of friendly aircraft involved in offensive and defensive counter air operations, close air support, battlefield air interdiction, combat search and rescue, reconnaissance, tactical air transport and air to air refuelling missions.
The E-3A/D’s multi-mode radar is able to separate moving targets from ground clutter by use of the Doppler principle. Consequently the E-3A/D crews are able to detect and track low-flying aircraft and they are also capable of operating in the maritime mode, which enables the radar to detect and track ships.
The E-3A Component has been called on to support a wide range of operations.
After the terror attacks of 11 September 2001, NATO invoked for the first time in its history
the "mutual defense" clause spelled out in Article 5 of its founding charter.
The Alliance therefore deployed its E-3A AWACS to the U.S. on Operation Eagle Assist
to fly a variety of security support missions, freeing more U.S. AWACS to operate in Afghanistan.
Less than two years later, responding to the threat posed by the war in Iraq,
Turkey requested that NATO help augment defensive forces in the region.
Deploying as part of Operation Crescent Guard, the E-3A provided additional surveillance support
to that mission. At the end of 2009, NATO AWACS began to assist in NATO’s Operation Active Endeavour,
a continuous operation monitoring the Mediterranean Sea for terrorism and piracy.
At the start of 2011 NATO AWACS began Operation Afghan Assist, flying missions over Afghanistan
in support of ISAF operations. Shortly afterwards, Operation Unified Protector was launched
to enforce the no-fly-zone and arms embargo imposed on Libya, and to protect Libyan civilians.
The Component also provides security support to important events like NATO Summits,
heads of state visits throughout Europe, and more.