It’s springtime, and judging by the busy flightline at Geilenkirchen airbase in Germany, the E-3A AWACS aircraft of NATO’s E-3A Component, it’s nesting time. But looks are deceiving, as these birds leave the nest every day. They keep an eye out over NATO territory on the East borders of Europe, take part in exercises such as the latest Red Flag in the US, or practice air-to-air refuelling in European skies. The multinational crews see their numbers reduced nevertheless. And while the aircraft are modified, their numbers also become smaller. By mid 2015, the first aircraft (tail number LX-N90449) retires into storage. However, the sign of the times is that the AWACS is needed more than ever.
While Geilenkirchen (nicknamed ‘Frisbee’) is their nest, the 17 Boeing E-3A Sentry Airborne Warning And Control System (AWACS) aircraft saw many places over the years. Exercises are a regular thing, but operations over Afghanistan were ‘the real deal’ up to last year. Operating from Mazar-e-Sharif for over three years, NATO crews flew over 1,240 missions and over 12,240 flying hours over Afghanistan, providing air surveillance and supporting aircraft involved in air operations such as close air support, battlefield air interdiction, combat search and rescue, reconnaissance and tactical air transport.
Now, the mission involves an old acquaintance towards the east of Europe, where Russia has taken an eye for the Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. “Oh, we see a lot of interesting stuff,” says E-3A tactical director Major Rob van Leeuwen when asked about the missions that continue along NATO’s eastern flank daily. “We have some powerful radar equipment in that 9 meter diameter frisbee on top of the aircraft, and when we’re over Romania we cover a large part of NATO’s Eastern approaches. Getting a clear view of what is happening over Donetsk and Luhansk in the Eastern part of Ukraine is stretching it a bit however. That area is over 500 miles away, and that’s beyond our range.”
Air and sea
Still, the crews have been providing a valuable picture for NATO and, for instance, the Air Policing Mission over the Baltic states in particular. Not only airborne movements are picked up, as the AWACS’s radar equipment is also capable of picking up movements at sea. Sensitive sensors on both sides of the fuselage scan for radar and radio signals. The missions are flown over Poland and Romania, both NATO members. Van Leeuwen: “It illustrates another change that happened within the E-3A Component over the last few years; personnel from new NATO members found their way to Geilenkirchen. The shared tactical knowledge gathered here is astonishing. It’s my job to get the best out of them.”
The daily flying schedule at Geilenkirchen involves a fair bit of air-to-air refuelling (AAR), with the help of US Air National Guard KC-135R tanker crews. Today on 18 March, an E-3A with call sign ‘Nato 04’ throttles up it four old skool Pratt & Whitney TF33-turbofans and heads off to northern Germany for a rendezvouz with ‘Esso 76’, a KC-135R flown by a crew from the 185th Air Refueling Wing from Sioux City, Iowa. Airborne refuelling allows the E-3A to stay up for hours at a time and less movements at Geilenkirchen for refuelling. That’s good news to the people living around the airbase, which is located right next to the German-Dutch border.
Van Leeuwen: “It’s true that the E-3A’s old engines aren’t exactly quiet. We export a lot of noise by also operating from Ørland in Norway, Trapani in Italy, Aktion in Greece and Konya in Turkey, but also by using AAR.” Replacing the E-3As engines is not on the cards, however. It not only involves new engines but also reinforcement of the wings, and is therefore deemed too expensive. All E-3As are well over 30 years old, but remain in excellent condition.
Budget does allow for modernizing the cockpits of 14 NATO E-3s to part glass cockpits. Boeing recently reported a successful first flight for the first modified aircraft, with further tests scheduled. The first modified aircraft should be in service by January 2016. The glass cockpit update takes away the need for a navigator, reducing the E-3 flight crew from 4 to 3. The update doesn’t affect the mission crew – usually 15 or so operators – in the main part of the aircraft. The two aircraft that are not updated are scheduled for retirement, LX-N90449 being the first to fly to AMARG in Arizona by June this year. Hours on the clock: roughly 19,000.
Reductions however do effect the E-3 Component as a whole. Today, 16 NATO nations provide personnel to the component. Canada in 2014 ended its commitment. With Royal Canadian Air Fore (RCAF) CF-188 Hornets now stationed in Germany as a response to both Russia’s behaviour and the threat the Islamic State (IS) poses, it justifies the question whether the Canadians might regret this decision. NATO now also directs more effort into a joint Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) system that should be in operation in Sigonella, Italy, within the next two years. All in all, it means the number of positions at Geilenkirchen will fall down from 2,000 to 1,500.
With current international turmoil, that’s quite a toll to take. All the better then, that crews remain motivated and grab every training opportunity they get. As evening falls over Geilenkirchen, ‘Nato 04’ and ‘Esso 76’ are still engaged in air-to-air refuelling. Aboard the AWACS, pilots take their turn in joining up with the KC-135R tanker, with a total of 15 ‘dry’ hook ups made, plus three ‘wet’ hook ups during which a total of 45,000 pounds of fuel is transferred from the tanker to the AWACS. At 20:30 hours local time, both the E-3 and the KC-135 return to Geilenkirchen, ending the day’s flying.
During the sortie, the frisbee on top remained ‘cold’. For the E-3A Component, there are plenty of training opportunities where the radar is switched to ‘hot’. Exercises such as Frisian Flag, the Tiger Meet and Arctic Challenge later this year provide valuable training hours. But the current missions watching the airspace towards the East reflect the true value of the E-3A. In 2014, a record of 400 NATO Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) launches were carried out in response of Russian aircraft snooping around. The Russians don’t hesitate to turn off their identification equipment, so they don’t show up on civilian radar screens, endangering air traffic. Van Leeuwen: “That’s indeed what is happening. But we’re the ones that always do see them.” There’s no escaping the eye in the sky that calls Geilenkirchen home.
© 2015 Airheadsfly.com editor Elmer van Hest
Featured image (top): ‘Nato 04’ finds ‘Esso 76’ under a glorious sunset. (Image © Dennis Spronk)