December 15, 2010: Japan is upgrading its ten-year old AWACS (Air Warning And Control) aircraft. Unlike U.S. AWACS, that are based on the 60 year old Boeing 707, the Japanese AWACS is built on the 30 year old Boeing 767. The 767 has 50 percent more floor space and twice the internal volume of the 707. The Japanese AWACS will get the latest radar and electronics improvements, which will make the systems cheaper to maintain and more reliable, as well as easier to use. The upgrades will cost over $50 million for each of Japan's four AWACS.
It was two years ago that the U.S. Air Force completed testing its latest E-3 AWACS upgrades. This Block 40/45 version consists largely of replacing the 1980s era computers and electronics with modern gear. This also makes it possible to more quickly upgrade hardware and software (often using off-the-shelf commercial stuff) in the future. Most visibly, the new software eliminates most of the hundreds of switches and knobs that surrounded the monitors and keyboards of the old model. Not only are many operations automated, using many functions are now point-and-click on a screen, not a separate switch.
The AWACS proved to be a key to victory in the 1991, 2001 and 2003 campaigns. The critical element in this was knowing where all friendly aircraft were at all times. Directing a lot of warplanes over enemy territory has long been a problem. It was elegantly solved with the development of airborne control aircraft like the E-3. But it took over half a century to perfect this approach.
The problem was first noted during World War II, when operations involving over a thousand aircraft in the air at once demonstrated how out-of-control things could get. But no technical solution was available. That is, you could not put a radar in an aircraft powerful enough to get the big picture, the entire picture.
However the U.S. Navy did plan to use radar equipped TBF Avengers to control the fighter screen protecting the fleet from Japanese suicide bombing attacks during the planned 1945 invasion of Japan. But the invasion never came off and the Navy pursued the radar equipped control aircraft idea at a more leisurely pace after the war. The navy E-1 airborne early warning aircraft first flew in 1956 and entered service in 1960. While mainly used to extend the radar coverage of a naval task force, this type of aircraft also had a vital role in controlling large numbers of friendly warplanes in air battles.
The U.S. Air Force also kept working on the problem. By 1953, the Air Force was able to send propeller driven transports (EC 121 Lockheed Constellations), equipped with powerful radar and radio equipment, off the coasts of North America to watch for Russian bombers. Beginning in 1965, the first of thirty EC 121s was sent to Vietnam, where they controlled combat operations in the northern part of the country. As useful as these aircraft were, it was obvious that, with a little more technology, one could really control air combat operations.
The ultimate solution came in the form of a four engine jet transport converted to a flying radar station and control tower. This was the E-3 AWACS, whose development began in the late 1960s, and the first prototypes were flying in the late 1970s. The E-3 went into regular use in 1982. Flying far enough inside friendly territory to avoid enemy anti aircraft missiles, the AWACS radar has a radar range of between 200 km (for small aircraft or cruise missiles flying close to the ground) to 600 km (for large aircraft flying at high altitude). The AWACS tracks several hundred friendly and enemy aircraft at once. The AWACS acts as an airborne command center for aircraft. Friendly planes are kept out of each other's way (there was not a single friendly air to air collision during the 1991 Gulf war, or in any subsequent operations using the E-3.)
Enemy aircraft are spotted, identified and friendly interceptors assigned to take care of the hostile planes. One or more AWACS is used to control an air operation and each can stay up eleven hours at a time, or up to 22 hours with refueling and extra crew on board to man the equipment. Its first wartime workout, during the 1991 Gulf war, was a spectacular success, often in more ways than anticipated. For example, the use of over a hundred tankers to refuel combat aircraft would not have been possible without the AWACS being there to efficiently link tankers and aircraft needing fuel. Forming up the Wild Weasels, and coordinating their use with the bombers they escorted, was much easier using an AWACS. Just keeping track of who was who and going where would not have been possible without the AWACS.