Support: July 23, 2002

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The Airborne Command Post- A key to winning the Afghanistan ground war was providing 24/7 bombing support for the Special Forces and commandos. The key to doing 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 solved during Afghanistan war. But it had taken half a century to work out how to do this. 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 hand 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. 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 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 (Air Warning And Control System,) whose development began in the late 1960s, the first prototypes were flying in the late 1970s and it 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 others way (there was not a single friendly air to air collusion during the 1991 Gulf war, or in the 2001 Afghanistan air campaign.) 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. The AWACS functions are a combination radar platform and command center. During its first wartime workout, during the 1991 Gulf war, the AWACS proved its worth, often in more ways than anticipated. 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. The communications equipment on board an AWACS allows information gathered by one AWACS to be quickly shared with other AWACS in the vicinity, other combat aircraft in the area as well as units at sea or on the ground. This function, which was eventually made to work, gave generals and admirals the goal of trying to link together all the sensor and communications of every ship, aircraft and ground unit in the area. But first, an AWACS for ground operations was needed. The Gulf War experience was immediately put to use during the Afghanistan war, and insured that the bombers, and the aerial tankers that kept everyone flying, were always where they were needed. This sort of thing doesn't make the news, but without AWACS, a lot of those newsworthy bombs would have never made it to their targets.

 


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