AWACs and E‐3S

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AWACs and E‐3S. The AWACS—for Airborne Warning and Control System—is a specialized military aircraft intended for long‐range air surveillance and control. Development of the AWACS—more specifically known as the Boeing E‐3 Sentry—began in 1961, as the latest in a long line of previous radar‐equipped early warning aircraft. But unlike these earlier aircraft, intended primarily to operate over the ocean, the E‐3 was to operate over land and in much more integrated fashion with supporting fighter aircraft. These two requirements demanded refinements in radar development and communications far beyond what had been expected of earlier airborne warning aircraft.

Airborne warning aircraft were first developed as a response to the threat of Japan's kamikaze attackers of the later Pacific War. The U.S. Navy acquired a small number of Boeing B‐17 Flying Fortresses, removed the bomb bay from the aircraft, and replaced it with a belly‐mounted radar, designating the new airplane the PB‐1. It foreshadowed a number of subsequent aircraft, both large and small, for the early warning and air control role. One notable example was the air force Lockheed C‐121 Warning Star aircraft, which helped direct air operations over North Vietnam and, in particular, warn American strike aircraft of the presence, location, and strength of opposing North Vietnamese MiG fighters.

Development of the AWACS took over a decade. Boeing flew the first AWACS testbed in 1972, based on a modified jet transport. At the same time, Westinghouse won a competition to produce the critical airborne radar that would perch above the transport, giving it a vaguely “flying saucer” shape. The first production E‐3 entered service with the U.S. Air Force in 1977. Subsequently, advanced models of the aircraft have been sold to the air force, as well as to NATO, Great Britain, France, and Saudi Arabia.

Key to the AWACS, in addition to its radar, is its comprehensive electronic equipment, including the Have Quick secure voice communications system, the Joint Tactical Information Display System (JTIDS), the Mark XV Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) radar, and the Navstar Global Position System space‐based location system. Over twenty crewmen operate the AWACS systems in flight, and it is data‐linked to other aircraft and to ground stations.

The value of AWACS was clearly demonstrated during the Persian Gulf War (1991). In that conflict, AWACS aircraft operated by the U.S. Air Force and the Royal Saudi Air Force managed and controlled over 3,000 coalition aircraft sorties per day. They detected Iraqi threats, and helped pair targets with strike aircraft. They “deconflicted” the air war, preventing so‐called “blue‐on‐blue” attacks. Further, their comprehensive control capabilities enabled the coalition to conduct the war without a single aircraft lost due to a midair collision.
[See also Intelligence, Military and Political.]


Benson, Lawrence R. Sentries Over Europe: First Decade of the E‐3 Airborne Warning and Control System in NATO Europe. HQ USAF Europe, Office of History, February 10, 1983.
Breslin, Vincent C. Development of the Airborne Warning and Control System and the E‐3A Brassboard, 1961–1972. Hanscom AFB, MA: AFSC ESD History Office, June 1983. In AF Historical Research Agency Archives, Maxwell AFB, Ala, as Call No. K243.016.
Sun, Jack K. AWACS Radar Program: The Eyes of the Eagle. Westinghouse Corporation, June 1, 1985.
Tessmer, Arnold Lee . The Politics of Compromise: A Study of NATO AWACS. Washington: NDU Research Directorate, March 19, 1982. Document 1272A, Archive No. 0171A.
Williams, George K. AWACS and JSTARS, in Jacob Neufeld, and George M. Watson, Jr., eds., Technology and the Air Force: A Retrospective Assessment, Washington, DC: AF History and Museums Program, 1997.

Richard P. Hallion