Why don’t hostile fighters go after the E-3 Sentry AWACS before being engaged (and in many cases being shot down) by NATO fighter aircraft?
The E-3 Sentry is an airborne warning and control system, or AWACS, aircraft with an integrated command and control battle management, or C2BM, surveillance, target detection, and tracking platform. The aircraft provides an accurate, real-time picture of the battlespace to the Joint Air Operations Center. AWACS provides situational awareness of friendly, neutral and hostile activity, command and control of an area of responsibility, battle management of theater forces, all-altitude and all-weather surveillance of the battle space, and early warning of enemy actions during joint, allied, and coalition operations.
Engineering, test and evaluation began on the first E-3 Sentry in October 1975. In March 1977 the 552nd Airborne Warning and Control Wing (now 552nd Air Control Wing, Tinker Air Force Base, Okla.), received the first E-3s.
As proven in operations Desert Storm, Allied Force, Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom, and Odyssey Dawn/Unified Protector the E-3 Sentry is the world’s premier C2BM aircraft. They provide radar surveillance and control in addition to providing senior leadership with time-critical information on the actions of enemy forces. The E-3 has also deployed to support humanitarian relief operations in the US following Hurricanes Rita and Katrina, coordinating rescue efforts between military and civilian authorities.
The data collection capability of the E-3 radar and computer subsystems allowed an entire air war to be recorded for the first time in the history of aerial warfare.
‘I was one of the systems engineers responsible for the design and development of AWACS. It happens that one of the studies I did was on the vulnerability of AWACS to enemy attack. This was in the 1970’s when the E-3 plane was first produced, so my information is rather dated. I’m sure improvements have been made.
‘First off, AWACS had two basic missions types. In one case, the plane loitered at some distance and surveyed the horizon. I can’t give you numbers, but the radar is very accurate for a very long distance. (So accurate, we could tell by the radar signature what the target was, what armaments it was carrying, and how many were left.) In the event an enemy fighter came our way, we would simply call up our own fighters to take them out. I did the calculations for “probability of kill” in various scenarios, and the net of it is that AWACS was not likely to suffer any dents.
‘The second case was more of a problem. This is where AWACS was over the battlefield providing ground support. (Besides aircraft, we could pick out vehicles on the ground even under dense cover). The problem in this situation was that the enemy aircraft might be right below us, or at least quite close. For this situation, we would need our own forces to fly alongside. Unlike AWACS, however, their time in the air is much more limited, so we’d need constant cycling of our defensive forces. Probability of kill was still high, but not so high that every crew position didn’t have an escape hatch.
‘The real problem was long range missiles. AWACS was radiating loudly on so many frequencies that a spit ball thrown into the air would likely be drawn to it by the static charge. Only a missile with a guidance system made in China might miss. Survivability was under 3 minutes unless the countermeasures were successful, which many times they are…. but many times, are not.’
‘So, we depended on careful deployment to NOT get us into those situations.
‘At this point, I think the best answer is that no fighter would go after AWACS because that would likely fail. But, if the enemy hoped to engage in any dogfighting, they had better start with a few long-range air defense missiles.’
According to Grupé the AWACS also ‘contributed to the invention of stealth technology. You see, when AWACS turns and runs, it’s own tail got in the way of the radar and created a 30+ degree blind spot. After various solutions were considered, like inverting the tail, or making it out of some composite material, these were abandoned when someone discovered that they could make the tail all but disappear with a careful coating of a dielectric paint. WHOA! That *literally* saved AWACS’ ass, but very quickly became a VERY big secret…. not to be mentioned again anywhere. It led to the F-117. But 40+ years later, it’s now out of the bag so it doesn’t matter anymore.’
Photo credit: Master Sgt. Dave Nolan / U.S. Air Force