Sharpening the Eye of the Eagle

Eye In The Sky Modernization Programs Face Tough Questions From Congressional Committees

During my time with Air Force Lifecycle Management Center, I provided systems engineering support to the 551st Wing and the airborne radar international programs division. With more than 3,500 Airmen, government civilians and support contractors and an acquisition execution of $19 billion, PEO Digital leads the wing which was originally comprised of three groups; the 551st focused on AWACS, the 751st focused on Joint Stars, and the 951st focused on Mission Planning. The 551st provides rapid effective delivery and sustainment of airborne command and control (C2) capabilities for surveillance, weapons control and battle management for US, NATO and international customers. The group is now under the new fifteen division designation AFLCMC HB.

Massachusetts Origins 

Built from a Boeing 707/320 commercial aircraft straight off the production line, the Air Force began testing the E-3 Sentry in October 1975. After installing a 30-foot-wide radar dome along with mission control systems in the main cabin for up to 19 specialists, the first E-3s were delivered to the Air Force at Tinker AFB Oklahoma in 1977.  
The aircraft immediately began flying missions at home and abroad, and is now almost continuously flying sorties, with high demand for availability. These missions range from small operations like drug interdiction and illegal immigration to air wars in Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Afghanistan, with the aircraft proving it can arrive on orbit and help set up an air campaign in foreign countries.  

The AWACS can track and control US and allied aircraft in all weather and provide a real-time picture of the entire battlespace to a joint air operations center (JAOC).  

These aircraft are of tremendous importance to the operators and a high value target to adversaries in a contested airspace. Equipped with a Northrop APY-1 or -2 surveillance radar housed in an above the fuselage radome, the E-3 Sentry is in use by, and sought after among the US, Coalition nations and NATO. 

Almost always in continuous service, the number that are operational at any time varies but includes the US Air Force – which has 31 – as well as international operators France, Saudi Arabia and the UK, which have a combined 15. A multinational NATO AWACS force is also equipped with a fleet of 17. Japan also has a fleet of four, based on the Boeing E-767 platform. 

Note that not all aircraft are always operational

Foreign militaries quickly followed on the success of the earliest US design, originating with a team from MIT Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington Massachusetts with a prototype on the ramp at Hanscom AFB. Foreign adversaries have since designed, built and sustain their own airborne radar aircraft. Operating a fleet of 21 Ilyushin Il-76-based Beriev A-50 AEW&C aircraft, the Russian Air Force fields similar capability to the American E-3 Sentry, along with a tactical data language (TDL) equivalent to Link 16 called OSNOD. There is also an export version, notably to India which operates a squadron of five aircraft, although not all aircraft are always operational at any given time. China’s air force also used the Il-76 as the platform for an indigenous airborne radar system, named the KJ-2000, with five aircraft (so far). 

Acquisition Strategies and Analysis of Alternatives (AoA) 

Over three decades of service, the E-3 AWACS fleet has enjoyed quite a number of radar and air movement tracking indicator (AMTI) module upgrades to improve command and control capabilities. 

Through the Block 30/35 program starting in 1987, the Air Force began upgrading computer processing power and improved latency datalinks to communicate with both more and different types of aircraft. Other systems that were upgraded through the ensuing Block 40/45 upgrade include improvements to electronic support measures and datalink, defensive electronic countermeasures, integration of Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation, new battle management computer systems, enhanced satellite-hosted internet chat, and spectrum management. These upgrades are not anticipated to reach full operational capability until May 2024.

UNCLASSIFIED: Cockpit at left upgraded to multi-display glass cockpit at right as part of block 40/45 DRAGON Program

Other efforts resulting from Air Force AoA studies include a 2003 contract awarded to Northrop Grumman to prototype the E-10 Multi-sensor Command and Control Aircraft (MC2A). Not unlike the F-35 concept for an all-in-one, the design combined the E-3 AWACS with the E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS), equipped with ground movement tracking indicator (GMTI) capabilities, and the RC-135 Rivet Joint signals intelligence aircraft. Due to technical challenges, the
E-10 program was cancelled in 2010.

In 2019, after an inconclusive new program called Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS), the Air Force announced that “no single platform, such as an aircraft, would be the right solution to providing command and control capabilities across multiple domains.” In testimony given in 2019, Air Force officials commented on a new vision for ABMS, which endeavors to deliver a family of command and control systems in air, space, and cyberspace. 

E-7 Wedgetail 

A Republic of Korea E-7 Credit Wikipedia

Based on a 737 airliner airframe, the E-7 was developed by the Royal Australian Air Force with a six aircraft contract awarded to Boeing. Subsequent deliveries to other air forces include the UK with five deliveries by 2023, and additional E-7s for both Turkey and South Korea. 

Partly in an effort to replace the E-3, the Air Force announced plans to acquire twenty E-7 aircraft with a sole source contract to Boeing, citing it is the only design that utilizes a multirole electronically scanned area radar that provides 360 degrees of surveillance coverage, with a reported radar range in excess of 200 miles, along with in-flight refueling. With operations and maintenance costs representing 3/4 of platform lifecycle cost, the Air Force and Boeing both point out that E-7 Wedgetail will have 66% lower operating cost along with higher mission capable rates when compared to E-3 AWACS. Two prototypes are planned, one in 2023 and another in 2024 with IOC achieved in 2030. 

Will AWACS be replaced by satellites? 

Over the next two years, the Air Force plans to sun set half its AWACS fleet of E-3 Sentries and nearly all E-8C JSTARS. In a 2023 budget request, the Air Force said they anticipate a delay between the sun-setting of the AWACS fleet and new Low Earth Orbit (LEO) ISR capabilities the Space Force is developing that are attempting to replace them. 

Meanwhile, the Space Force announced that it intends to develop a low earth orbit satellite constellation to provide the same kind of GMTI and AMTI capabilities as the E-3 in the near future. Other documents published by the Air Force disclose how it intends to eventually transition airborne battle management aircraft to a space-based constellation. There are no indications when this will occur. 

In an April 05, 2022 meeting with Air Force executives at PEO Digital at Hanscom AFB, AF leaders remarked about difficult timing and risk concerning when to stop investing in block upgrades on an air frame (707) that is at the end of service life, versus moving to expensive new platforms like the E-7, verses waiting for spaced based LEO capabilities to reach full operational capability (FOC). These are difficult questions, and as shown in a recent congressional committee report, there are even more difficult questions that need to be answered. Questions like what are the tradeoffs of pursuing a space-based command and control architecture compared with a traditional air-based system?  When does the Space Force anticipate having a space-based GMTI and AMTI capability ready to replace in service aircraft? How effective will the E-7 Wedgetail be in the presence of advanced air defense and adversary fighter aircraft? Could uncrewed systems perform similar command and control missions and how much additional development would an uncrewed solution require . . . and would it offer operational advantages? 

Air Force Seeks Drone Control Motherships 

A Gremlins Air Vehicle during a test at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, October 2021. DARPA

The Air Force announced plans to develop a new drone that launches from a cargo plane and, at the end of its mission, can return to the same plane for a mid-air recovery. Gremlins is part of a wide-ranging effort by DARPA and other military agencies to develop small, inexpensive unmanned aerial vehicles that can enhance and complement the capabilities of existing war planes operating in contested airspace. By providing the ability for a single, manned aircraft to stand off from danger yet manage multiple air vehicles equipped with sensors and other payloads delivers enhanced support of tactical strike, reconnaissance & surveillance and close air support missions, amongst others. When the UAV’s complete their mission, they return to airborne manned platforms where they can be quickly refueled and rearmed and put back into high tempo situations. DARPA’s Long Shot autonomous air launched uninhabited aerial vehicle prototype is designed as an autonomous UAV that can serve as a mothership for munitions, launching its own air-to-air missiles once in range of enemy aircraft. The goal of Long Shot is to demonstrate a drone launched by fighters, bombers or a mothership flying at stand-off ranges that will autonomously fly into enemy airspace and launch its own air-to-air missiles to shoot down enemy aircraft. The objective is to develop an armed UAV swarm under the control of a mothership aircraft that can significantly extend engagement ranges, increase mission effectiveness, and reduce the risk to piloted aircraft. These concepts are of great interest to Air Force Global Strike Command where they are exploring concepts to improve the stand-off range of its B-2 bomber fleet in the presence of increased air-defense capabilities of peer adversaries like Russia and China.


After enjoying the complete air superiority achieved in conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Air Force is undergoing a significant adjustment. As part of the “Pivot to the Pacific”, they are planning for conflicts in highly contested air space with peer adversaries Russia and China, who themselves are fielding advanced air defense systems like the
S-500 and HQ-9, reported to match the capabilities of the US Patriot batteries. 

At the same time, modernization and interoperability transformation initiatives like the Air Force Joint All Domain Command & Control (JADC2) which promises to connect every sensor to every shooter are proving much more difficult to plan, develop and integrate into the force, even with the advent of advanced techniques like digital engineering and digital twins.

Air Force executives communicated they are planning now for the fight in 2025-2030, a battle space characterized as a bloodless conflict between attritable unmanned systems, or a fight between autonomous or remotely piloted internet of things. As the Air Force expands their unmanned portfolio and pursues preservation of piloted air vehicles through stand-off concepts of operation, the need for airborne radar and command and control (C2) where mother ships enable remote piloting and control of UAV’s and drone swarms will only grow stronger over time.


01. Cover Image, Japanese Air Self Defense photo by 1st Lt. Takeshi Okubo, OVER ALASKA – A formation of F-16 Fighting Falcons, Japanese F-15s and an E-767 airborne warning and control system participate in Cooperative Cope Thunder. This Pacific Air Forces-sponsored air combat training exercise takes place in June at Eielson and Elmendorf Air Force Bases in Alaska. Participants include people and aircraft from the United States, Japan, Germany, Singapore, Australia, Sri Lanka, Mongolia, Thailand, Bangladesh, South Korea and the United Kingdom.

02. Railey, Col Doug, AFLCMC 551st Wing, Welcome to the 551st Electronic Systems Wing, August 2008

03. Tashji, David E, AFLCMC 551st Wing, Foreign Military Sales, Japan E-767 NAVWAR Mandate CJCSI 6140.01A, Anti-spoofing SAASM GPS Engineer, August 2008

04. Wert, Steven W., Senior Executive Service, Program Executive Officer, AFLCMC HB Digital, Hanscom Air Force Base; Secretary of the Air Fore Priorities, tracking and engaging moving targets at IoT scale, April 05, 2022, October 6, 2022

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