Home to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) Airborne Early Warning & Control Force Command’s E-3A Component, Geilenkirchen Air Base is located in the Federal Republic of Germany adjacent to the border with the Netherlands. Jetwash Aviation Photos was provided with exclusive access to the unit to report on the day to day operations of the Boeing E-3A and the multi-national personnel who fly and maintain this vital part of NATO's multi-lateral defence system.
Pratt & Whitney TF-33 tufbo-fan engine (left) and multi-mode Doppler radar (right)
We would like to thank the following for assisting us in our visits to the NATO E-3 AEW & CF;
Major Johannes M. Glowka (Chief, Public Affairs, NATO AEW&CF)
Captain André Bongers (Deputy, Public Affairs, NATO AEW&CF)
The personnel and crews of Squadron 3, NATO AEW&CF
The personnel and crews of 151st ARW, Utah Air National Guard
The Grumman/Westinghouse AN/APY-2 airborne surveillance radar is mounted in the rotor-dome atop the fuselage, which has a diameter of 30ft (9.1m), a height of 11ft (3.35m) and rotates once every ten seconds. The E-3A has an operational altitude above 30,000ft (9,150m), with a maximum take-off weight of 325,000lbs (147,429kg). With a full fuel load the E-3A has endurance in excess of 10 hours, although all E-3A aircraft are of course capable of air-to-air refuelling.
The NATO operated Boeing E-3A has a standard crew of 16, which is made up of the Aircraft Commander, First Officer, Navigator and Flight Engineer on the flight deck, the mission crew, that is made up of the Tactical Director, Surveillance Controller, three Surveillance Operators and a Passive Controller, the Weapons Team that consists of the Fighter Allocator and two Weapons Controllers, and finally the Airborne Technicians, that consist of a Communications Technician, a Radar Technician and a Systems Technician. The E-3A normally operates at an altitude of 30,000ft, enabling a single AWACS to monitor airspace within a 250 mile (400km) radius of the aircraft. With its digital data-link system it can provide both ground and sea-based commanders with 'real time' information on high and low-level aircraft threats using its multi-mode Doppler radar.
The E-3 ramp seen as dusk settles over Geilenkirchen (above and below)
During our time with the NATO AEW&CF we had the opportunity to fly an air to air refuelling mission with the 151st Air Refueling Wing of the Utah ANG. Midway through their two-week TDY (Temporary Duty) on January 12, 2015, we flew out of GK on #61-0275 (call-sign 'Esso 75') to meet up with our receiver (call-sign 'Nato 09'), which had departed GK some five minutes prior to our KC-135 for an oceanic crossing to NAS Norfolk, Virginia.
The large ESM blisters are clearly visible on the side of the E-3A fuselage
They were added during the Near-Term Upgrade Programme between 1991 and 2000
The Follow-up Programme known as DRAGON (Diminishing Manufacturing Sources Replacement of Avionics for Global Operations and Navigation), which is scheduled to be completed by 2018 at a cost of $250 million, will see 13 of the E-3As upgraded with a Mode 5 IFF system and a Mode-S transponder & interrogator, which will assist the crews in generating a 'recognised air picture' and thus better situational awareness of friendly air, maritime and ground assets. The flight deck will also undergo a much needed upgrade, providing the fleet with a modern 'glass' cockpit. Civil aviation authorities will be putting new Air Traffic Management (ATM) procedures in place, as well as Communication, Navigation and Surveillance (CNS) systems to cope with ever increasing traffic levels and at present the E-3A does not comply with the new ATM standards, which will result in the aircraft being restricted in terms of their operations. Once completed, it is perceived that the upgraded aircraft will also transition from a four man to a three man flight crew, consisting of two pilots and one engineer. The Engineering, Manufacturing and Design (EMD) phase of the cockpit upgrade will be executed in co-operation with the United States AWACS fleet.
Taking responsibility for the surveillance team is the Surveillance Controller (SC), who reports directly to the TD. We spoke to Capt Manuela Magistrali, a combat ready SC who arrived at GK in February 2014, having previously worked for five years as a Track Production Officer at the CRC (Control & Reporting Centre) in northern Italy. She told us "I am in charge of the Surveillance Operators (SO). My job is to monitor and oversee them, not to tell them what to do. We have three SOs, SO1 links to the ground stations, SO2 is my back-up and is normally the most experienced of the operators and is also the main 'tracker'. SO3 monitors the IFF and ECM, supporting the flight deck in traffic separation and operating the AIS (Automatic Identification System) for ground systems and ships". The SC also links in with the other operators on the flight, such as the Radar Tchnician, to ensure that the whole crew have a picture of what is happening in the battle space being monitored by the AWACS.
NATO Airborne Early Warning & Control Force
Geilenkirchen Main Operating Base
The refuelling receptacle atop the fuselage of the Boeing E-3A is clearly visible in the open position in the photo above
'Ukraine Watch' Announced on March 10, 2014, the current operations over Poland and Romania enables NATO to monitor large portions of Ukrainian airspace, particularly the sensitive areas around Crimea and Donetsk. So as to avoid their presence being seen as intimidating or escalatory, the aircraft only fly within NATO controlled airspace and do not encroach into international airspace. Despite these restrictions the E-3s are still able to monitor all of western Ukraine, including the capital Kiev and the Crimean peninsula, which was controversially seized by Russia in February 2014. All of the missions are flown from Geilenkirchen, with daily taskings over Romania and every other day over Poland in conjunction with RAF E-3Ds and French Air Force E-3Fs.
The tasking of the E-3 provides NATO with a significantly more accurate picture of current events in Ukraine; and with Russia deliberately clouding its involvement in the area, the presence of NATO AWACS aircraft is vital in assessing how to gauge and respond to future developments. Deploying the E-3 force allows NATO to act quickly, whilst also deflecting any Russian response against individual alliance members, as the aircraft do not belong to any one nation, but NATO as a whole. In addition, as the aircraft are unarmed and flying within NATO airspace only, they provide no offensive threat to Russia and therefore are unlikely to provoke any military response. Since the Russian 'annexing' of Crimea and the escalation by pro-Russian forces around the Donetsk area, the situation has calmed somewhat in recent weeks. How much longer the NATO AEW&C Force continues to monitor the area is one for the future. One thing that is for sure is that once again the unit clearly illustrates what an important asset it is to NATO.
Lt Col Fabrizio Zanetti, Deputy Commander of Squadron 3 and a Tactical Director with the unit told us "Ukraine Watch is not a mission, it is about defending NATO. We are there to detect the air picture for Poland and Romania in support of Article 4 of the NATO Treaty. They (Poland & Romania) requested SACEUR to support them to have a better picture on their land which neighbours Ukraine".
An AEW&CF E-3A basks in the October sun on the Geilenkirchen ramp
#LX-N90453 is seen at Geilenkirchen on October 13, 2014
History of the NATO E-3A; Studies by NATO’s major commanders in the 1970s showed that an airborne early warning (AEW) system would significantly enhance the alliance’s air defence capability. In December 1978 NATO's Defence Planning Committee signed a memorandum of understanding to buy and operate an airborne early warning (AEW) system and the NATO Airborne Early Warning & Control Force (NAEW&CF) was established in January 1980. From an initial order of 18 aircraft, the NATO E-3A Component currently operates 17 Boeing E-3A AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) aircraft, with one having been damaged beyond repair after over-running the runway at Preveza, Greece in July 1996.
'Nato 09' closes in on our KC-135 over Scotland on January 12, 2015
The NMT upgrade made the NATO E-3A the most advanced Airborne Warning and Control System platform in the world and can now provide a more complete air picture than ground radar systems. The NMT upgrade programme reached Full Operational Capability (FOC) in October 2010 and was completed in August 2011 at a cost of US$1.6bn. Among many major updates, the NMT included Multi-Sensor Integration (MSI), automated digital communications switching, new identification friend and foe (IFF) capabilities, five additional display consoles, satellite communications and wide spectrum VHF radios.
Hooked-up to the boom of the Stratotanker, this E-3A takes on fuel prior to making an oceanic crossing to the United States
The E-3A flight deck is quite cramped with the four-man crew in place
A planned cockpit upgrade is currently underway, with the first aircraft expected to arrive at Geilenkirchen in 2015
The E-3A above is one of two aircraft seen transiting to NAS Norfolk, Virginia on January 12, 2015
The new flat-panel display is the hallmark of the NMT, which is mainly developed on input from AWACS operators, allowing a user friendly set up, providing the crew members with improved situational awareness. “It’s been said that behind every great fighting force there’s the power of information. NMT gives us phenomenal new tools to process and disseminate critical information in seconds across the entire battle-space", said Major General Stephen Schmidt, NAEW&C Force Commander at the time; “NMT will also enable us to transition to the net-centric environments of the future, where we will continue to leverage this critical information platform to its maximum potential. NMT is the digital bridge that takes us beyond airborne command and control and into the new age of Information and true battle-space management".
AWACS Component's ISAF mission comes to an end; September 25, 2014 saw a ceremony take place at Geilenkirchen to mark the end of NATO E-3A support to the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) mission in Afghanistan, when the final two aircraft (#LX-N90442 & #LX-N90458) returned home. The ceremony was overseen by General Hans-Lothar Domröse (Commander JFC Brunssum & 'Out-of-Theatre Commander' of the ISAF Force), Major-General Jochen Both (NATO AEW&C Force Commander) and Major-General Andrew M. Mueller (Commander NAEW&C Force E-3A Component). Operation 'Afghan Assist' was conducted from Mazar-e Sharif in northern Afghanistan and saw E-3A AWACS aircraft providing air command & control, communications relay and radar coverage to coalition air and ground troops within Afghan air space. Critically, the AWACS delivered enhanced situational awareness for air and ground commanders, enabled support of CAS (close air support) assets and provided an additional means of medical evacuation and personnel recovery.
The first operational NATO E-3A flight supporting the ISAF mission was conducted on January 15, 2011 and from that time onwards operational missions were flown on a daily basis. This proved to be the first time that NATO E-3s supported an operation whilst stationed in a crisis area outside of NATO territory. During the mission, a total of 1,273 missions were flown by E-3A aircraft over the three and a half year period, with over 12,0ours flown. The final operational ISAF mission was flown on September 21, 2014.
United States Air National Guard co-operation; Located alongside the E-3A ramps at GK is a temporary detachment (TDY) of United States Air National Guard (USANG) Boeing KC-135R Stratotanker air to air refuelling aircraft. Established in January 1990, two USANG tankers deploy to GK on a two-week rotational basis to provide the NATO AEW&CF with air to air (AAR) refuelling training. The TDY is shared between all of the USANG units operating the KC-135, with the contract between the USANG and NATO being put out to tender every two years under the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) programme and the KC-135s only being allowed to refuel the NATO or Royal Air Force E-3s under the terms of the contract. AAR training is normally carried out over northern Germany in the 'Kim Long' air to air refuelling area (AARA), a dedicated part of air space that is 112 nautical miles (nm) long by 12nm wide, situated between Hohn and Osnabruck.
KC-135R 62-3516 of the 161st Air Refueling Wing, Arizona Air National Guard based at Phoenix, Arizona
The unit's TDY was taken up by the Utah Air National Guard's 151st ARW
The Boeing E-3A's primary function is airborne surveillance, command, control and communications. It is powered by four Pratt & Whitney TF33-100A turbo-fan engines, each providing 20,500 lbs of thrust. The aircraft has a wingspan of 145ft 9in (44.45m), a length of 152ft 11in (46.68m) and is 41ft 9in (12.70m) high.
E-3A Update Programmes; The Near-Term Upgrade Programme that took place between 1991-2000, enhanced the communications, surveillance and computer capabilities of the E-3A, added a 'Link16' data-link system, Electronic Support Measures (ESM) equipment and also a Radar System Improvement Programme (RSIP). This was followed by the NATO Mid-Term Programme (NMT), which commenced in 1997 to further improve the capabilities of the E-3A fleet and to manage future challenges by improving the overall combat capabilities of the aircraft as a force multiplier. The NMT was treated as a single-block upgrade that consisted of nine integrated system enhancements including modern software architecture for future growth.
Major Roberto Rinaldi, an Italian Air Force pilot assigned to the NATO AEW&CF since March 2013 and has some 600 hours experience on the E-3, gave us an insight into what it is like to fly the aircraft. "I have been an aircraft commander since July (2014) and previously flew the C-130J for 10 years. The E-3 is quite different to the C-130, especially from the avionics side. It is like flying an old aeroplane with new technology in a modern environment. It's interesting; I can tell that I really 'fly' this aeroplane compared to the C-130. With a full digital cockpit (as on the C-130J) it is almost just pressing buttons. You can feel it (the E-3), you actually feel yourself moving the aeroplane. It's old school cables and wires".
The Tactical Director (TD) on board the aircraft is responsible for the actual mission assigned to to the E-3A. As with other operators that make up the crews of the NATO AEW&CF, the post is generally a three year assignment from the host nation. The TD is responsible for directing the other crew members and accomplishing the task assigned by the Combat Air Operations Centre (CAOC). Lt Col Fabrizio Zanetti told us, "We are currently testing the ACCS (Air Command & Control System), the new system that controls all NATO missions on the ground for air defence. We push the maritime and air picture we have built-up to the ground systems. We can be sent land tracks to build up the picture, but we do not have a land radar and so have no detection capability other than the ESM, which can detect emmitions from ground radar. We have four sections on the aircraft; flight deck, surveillance section, weapons section and ESM section. The TD is responsible to the CAOC for making it happen. We are not pushing the info, we are building up a picture, improving it and communicating it"
'Nato 09' slowly drops away from 'Esso 75' after taking on gas
This Boeing 757-28A is operated for cargo and personnel transportation on behalf of the AEW&CF by TNT Airways
It replaced three Boeing 707s that were withdrawn from service between 2010 and 2011
At the present time 17 of the 28 NATO partner-nations (Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Turkey, United Kingdom and the United States) participate in the programme, with 15 of them providing personnel to the NATO E-3 component (Luxembourg does not provide personnel and the United Kingdom operate their own fleet of six E-3D aircraft from RAF Waddington). Force Command Headquarters is located with Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) in Mons, Belgium; and is commanded by either a US Air Force or German Air Force Major General on a rotational basis. The Deputy Commander is always a Royal Air Force (RAF) Air Commodore. Force Command reports directly to Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR). The NAEW&C Force consists of two components, the NATO Component at Geilenkirchen and the RAF Component at RAF Waddington. The first three E-3A aircraft have been operating from Geilenkirchen since February 1982, with the unit being officially activated on June 28, 1982 and reaching Full Operational Capability by the end of 1988. In addition to Geilenkirchen there are three Forward Operating Bases (FOB) at Trapani (Italy), Preveza (Greece) and Konya (Turkey), together with a Forward Operating Location (FOL) at Ørland (Norway).
This gorgeous looking Arizona ANG Stratotanker had arrived for a two week TDY on the day we arrived at Geilenkirchen in October 2014
#LX-N90442 is seen here on final approach at RAF Brize Norton, United Kingdom
NATO E-3s are regularly seen conducting practice diversions at airfields around Europe whilst on training missions
Known as the 'Pit', inside the E-3A is where the Weapons Team and the Airborne Technicians conduct operations
As dusk falls, #LX-N90452 is seen departing Geilenkirchen on October 13, 2014
There are two flight simulators at GK, a full flight sim and a more basic version that is used for system knowledge and emergency drills. Around 100 hours per year are currently flown by the pilots in the sim's. CAE Systems announced at the 2014 Farnborough Airshow that it had signed a contract with NATO to upgrade the E-3A flight deck simulator and E-3A flight training device located at NATO Airbase Geilenkirchen in Germany. The modernisation of the E-3A flight simulators will ensure concurrency with the upgrades currently being performed on NATO's fleet of E-3A aircraft and is planned to be completed by 2018, in conjunction with the aircraft upgrade programme schedule.
"The E-3A flight simulators help provide safe and cost-effective training for the 16 nations involved in the multi-national NATO E-3A Component", said Ian Bell, CAE's Vice President and Business Leader - Europe. "CAE has supported the training of NATO E-3A aircrews for more than 30 years, and we're pleased to extend this support with another major modernisation effort programme for the E-3A training devices located at the Geilenkirchen main operating base". The NATO E-3A flight deck simulator was designed and manufactured by CAE and entered service in 1982. The E-3A flight deck simulator has undergone numerous improvement programmes, with more than 100 modifications during the past 30 years. The numerous upgrades and qualification to Level D, the highest for flight simulators, has allowed NATO E-3A aircrews to amass more than 100,000 hours of training on the E-3A flight deck simulator. In 2012, CAE delivered a Level II qualified E-3A flight training device to support familiarisation and procedural training for aircrews prior to full-mission training in the E-3A flight deck simulator.