TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. — The long-awaited, highly anticipated deployment of the E-3 “Sentry” Airborne Warning and Control System Block 40/45 aircraft is finally over, with the arrival of the first upgraded weapon system to a combat theater of operations.
The first E-3G arrived in Southwest Asia Nov. 18, marking the deployment of the most comprehensive modification to the weapon system in its 38-year history. The changes improve communications, computer processing power, threat tracking and other capabilities.
The $2.7 billion upgrades replace some hardware and software that dates to the 1970s, signaling a game-changer to airborne surveillance and air battle management.
“This modification represents the most significant upgrade in the 35-plus year history of the E-3 and greatly enhances our crewmembers’ ability to execute the command and control mission, while providing a building block for future upgrades,” said Col. David Gaedecke, commander of the 552nd Air Control Wing at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., which flies the E-3.
To date, nine of the 27 E-3s assigned to the 552nd ACW have received the modification and have met their crew certification on the Block 40/45 systems.
“This is the initial combat deployment for the capability after numerous exercises,” Col. Gaedecke said. “Crews will be able to process tactical information, providing combatant commanders with increased situational awareness.”
The Block 40/45 provides solutions operational and technological reliability, maintainability, supportability, and integration of future technologies and growth opportunities.
What’s more, the new modifications automate previously manual functions and improve the amount of data that E-3 aircrews can receive and share with allied forces on missions such as counterdrug surveillance.
“This upgrade takes computing capability from 1970s technology to current day,” Col. Gaedecke said. “Tied with the Deployable Ground System, this allows both operators and intelligence personnel capabilities far beyond (the older model) 30/35.”
The upgrade has been a partnership between the 552nd ACW, the E-3 System Program Offices at Hanscom AFB, Mass., and Tinker AFB, the Oklahoma City Air Logistics Complex, which performs the modification, and the Boeing Co., the prime contractor.
The E-3G model reached Initial Operating Capability on July 28, 2015 and the OC-ALC went into full-rate production shortly thereafter, a milestone marking the start of faster upgrades for the remainder of the airborne surveillance and battle management fleet.
While the E-3Gs have been flown in counterdrug operations for U.S. Southern Command and in homeland defense missions as part of Operation Noble Eagle, they have yet to be flown in active combat missions until now.
Col. Gaedecke has previously laid out the plan for the aircraft to participate in Red Flag in August and, if all went well, deploy the weapon system in combat this fall.
“While our tactics, techniques and procedures employing this new capability continue to be refined, exercises like Red Flag allowed crews to gain experience with the system, which included capabilities unavailable with 30/35,” he said.
Known for its signature black-and-white rotating radar dome that sits on top of the aircraft, the E-3 provides all-weather surveillance, command, control and communications needed by commanders of U.S., NATO and other allied air defense forces.
In support of air-to-ground operations, the Sentry can provide direct information needed for interdiction, reconnaissance, airlift and close-air support to friendly ground forces. It can also provide information for commanders of air operations to gain and maintain control of the air battle.
As an air defense system, E-3s can detect, identify and track airborne enemy forces far from boundaries of the U.S. or NATO countries. It can direct fighter-interceptor aircraft to enemy targets. The E-3 is designed to respond quickly and effectively to a crisis and support worldwide deployment operations.
With its mobility as an airborne warning and control system, the Sentry has a greater chance of surviving in warfare than a fixed, ground-based radar system. Among other things, the flight path can quickly be changed according to mission and survival requirements.
The E-3 can also fly a mission profile for more than eight hours without refueling. Its range and on-station time can be increased through in-flight refueling and the use of an onboard crew rest area.
The 552nd ACW is home to the E-3, with 27 of the fleet’s 31 AWACS aircraft being housed at Tinker. Of the remaining four aircraft, two are stationed at Kadena Air Base, Japan, and two at Joint Base Elemendorf-Richardson, Alaska.
The fleet continues on its upgrade timelines, with a rate of approximately five aircraft being modified each year.
The 552nd ACW will continue to operate out of their current forward operating location for operations in Afghanistan as part of Operation Freedom Sentinel and against ISIS/ISIL in Iraq and Syria as part of Inherent Resolve.
Now that the E-3Gs have been deployed to a combat theater of operation, Col. Gaedecke said AWACS will continue to be relevant in the battle space of the future.
“Deploying to the combat theater is the culmination of many hard hours, learning and building standard operating procedures to execute the mission in any combat or contingency environment,” he said. “What the E-3 brings to the fight is essential to our combat commanders, both in the air and on the ground.”
Col. Gaedecke said the new E-3G will begin flying combat missions immediately.