Does The U.S. Air Force Plan To Replace Its E-3 AWACS Fleet?

U.S. Air Force Boeing E-3 Sentry
The E-3 Sentry military derivative of the Boeing 707 entered service in 1978 with a 30-ft.dia. rotating radar dome and a command-and-control suite crewed by 13-19 specialists.
Credit: U.S. Air Force

Ask the Editors: The Aviation Week Network invites our readers to submit questions to our editors and analysts. We’ll answer them, and if we can’t we’ll reach out to our wide network of experts for advice.

Since the U.S. Air Force has decided to replace the E-8C with a distributed network of sensors tied to manned and unmanned systems within the Advanced Battle Management System, are you aware of any plans for replacing the E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS)?

Defense Editor Steve Trimble answers:

The Boeing E-3G Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) defined a new way of warfare for the U.S. military when the original model was introduced in 1978. By centralizing airborne sensing and command and control on a single platform within the line of sight of an air battle, the U.S. Air Force’s battle managers could improvise new offensive and defensive tactics in real time. But the E-3G’s very importance to the style of U.S. and NATO air warfare also has made it an extremely valuable target to an array of emerging weapons, including long-range anti-radiation missiles or so-called “AWACS killers.”

As a result, U.S. Air Force and NATO officials have publicly discussed plans for replacing their respective E-3 fleets using a distributed systems approach; all of the options in consideration at this point are still not fully developed—at least in public. It’s important to remember the E-3 fleet performs two different functions: airborne early warning (AEW) and command and control.

The former function demands integrating a large radar capable of sensing at great distances. In addition to power, the radar must be incredibly precise, discriminating small, fast-moving targets, including cruise missiles, against background clutter. Given the future vulnerability of a large, radiating platform within the atmosphere to potential threats, one option may be to replace, or at least significantly augment, AEW coverage through the use of a proliferated constellation of small satellites in low Earth orbit.

In terms of the command-and-control function, the Air Force now is experimenting with the first elements of a future Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS). The ABMS anticipates replacing the battle management functions of the Northrop Grumman E-8C Joint Stars fleet by 2025 with a network of sensors and processors distributed across multiple manned and unmanned platforms. The Air Force may seek to adopt the same approach for replacing the AWACS fleet beyond 2025. But there are other alternatives.

Until the ABMS program entered the discussion for replacing J-Stars, the Air Force planned to recapitalize the E-8C fleet with business jet-class aircraft, such as the Boeing 737, Bombardier Global 6000 or Gulfstream G550. Those options, or future business jets, could still be available if the Air Force decides to replace the E-3G fleet using a conventional fleet replacement model. Alternatively, the Air Force could adapt a large commercial derivative aircraft, such as the Boeing 767-based KC-46, for the AWACS mission.

Steve Trimble

Steve covers military aviation, missiles and space for the Aviation Week Network, based in Washington DC.


1 Comment
Anything in low earth orbit has a predictable path and periodicity to a great extent. A manned asset flying in terrestrial space can be very autonomous in its path chosen if necessary. If it is stealthy and uses passive sensors it has greater survivability, and autonomy.