The first NATO Boeing E-3 AWACS to be retired set off for its final flight on Tuesday 23 June. The aircraft took off from Geilenkirchen airbase, its home for over 30 years, and headed for Davis Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona. Once there, the aircraft will be placed in storage with the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group, better known as AMARG.
The final flight involved a final air-to-air refuelling off the coast of the US state of New England. At AMARG, re-usable parts worth roughly 35 million EUR are removed from the aircraft. The E-3 will then remain in storage for three years, after which it is likely to be scrapped. See the final landing at Davis Monthan here.
The aircraft selected to retire (tail number LX-N90449) was scheduled for a 15 million EUR Depot Level Maintenance (DLM) inspection mid-July 2015. Instead, the decision was made to retire the AWACS.
During its operational NATO career the airframe gathered well over 22,000 flight hours, operating out of 21 different countries. It flew its very final operational mission on 13 May 2015.
The E-3 is one of the few NATO AWACS aircraft not to receive a cockpit upgrade by Boeing. The upgrade involves a part glass cockpit, but is limited to 14 aircraft. With the departure of LX-N90449, a total of 16 AWACS aircraft are left at Geilenkirchen.
With the delivery of the second aircraft, the French Armée de l’Air has reached Initial operating capability (IOC) of its upgraded Boeing E-3F AWACS aircraft. Operational tests and evaluations are complete, said Boeing on 20 May. The upgrade is part of a Foreign Military Sale (FMS) between the French Defense Procurement and Technology Agency (Direction générale de l’armement – DGA) and the US government.
In July 2014, the French received their first upgraded E-3 back from Boeing. As the prime contractor, Boeing provides hardware, software, engineering and quality assurance support. Air France Industries KLM Engineering & Maintenance, a Boeing subcontractor on the project, is upgrading the electrical, mechanical and structural systems and mission hardware on the aircraft.
France has four AWACS to monitor national airspace, national interests, and support allied missions. The aircraft are receiving modifications through a Mid-life Upgrade (MLU) to increase the fleet’s surveillance, communications and battle management capabilities. AWACS crew members will experience reduced workload, receive more actionable information and have better situational awareness thanks to these enhancements.
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.
Interesting 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.
Boeing recently completed the first flight of a NATO Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft with modern flight deck and avionics systems that replace 1970s-era analog systems.
During the two-hour flight, testers evaluated five full-color glass displays with customizable engine, navigation and radar data. The systems performed better than expected and the program will now enter an extensive flight test qualification phase. Fourteen NATO AWACS in total will receive the flight deck modernization, delivery of the first upgraded aircraft is scheduled for January 2016.
“These improvements provide NATO with an AWACS fleet that will save time and fuel and will also decrease operational costs by allowing a reduction in the flight crew size,” said Jon Hunsberger, Boeing AWACS program manager.
The upgrades ensure compliance with current and future air traffic control and navigation requirements, giving the aircraft broader access to airspace around the world. They also resolve recurring issues involving out-of-production avionics by using commercial, off-the-shelf digital avionics.
The upgrade to the first NATO AWACS, as well as for a US Air Force AWACS aircraft, is part of a 394-million USD contract awarded in 2012. First flight of the upgraded American AWACS is expected in 2016. Modifications on NATO aircraft should be completed by 2018.
UPDATED 20 FEBRUARY 2015 | Cope North Guam 2015 (CNG15), a multinational exercise of the United States and its closest allies facing China, is underway in the Pacific. The Republic of Korea Air Force (South Korea), the Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) and the Royal Australian Air Force are participating, as well as the US armed forces of course. Epicentre of the operations: Andersen Air Force Base.
CNG15 involves a large force employment performing simulated air combat and disaster relief operations according to various scenarios. For the Royal Australian Air Force this is the fourth time its personnel and aircraft are participating. To underline its importance the RAAF’s contribution is substantial: eight McDonnell Douglas (Boeing) F/A-18A/B Hornet multi-role fighters, a Airbus KC-30A Multi-Role Tanker Transport and Lockheed Martin C-130J Hercules.
The US Air Force has – amongst other assets – B-52s, F-15s, F-16s, KC-135s and C-130s in the area. Japan deployed indigenous Mitsubishi F-2 multi-role fighters and McDonnell Douglas (Boeing) F-15s, as well as C-130s, a KC-767J and the E-2C Hawkeye. The exact contribution of South Korea was not clear at the time of writing, but some of the images released by the RAAF give a minor clue. According to the exercise leaders officers of the Royal New Zealand Air Force and the Philippine Air Force are participating as well, but whether they bring their own aircraft was not confirmed.
Cope North Guam 2015 runs from 15 to 27 February. Corporal David Gibbs of the Royal Australian Air Force’s 28SQN AFID-EDN is at Andersen and made some nice shots!