France is spending $300 million to upgrade its four E-3F AWACS (Air Warning And Control System) aircraft. The upgrade will replace ancient (mainframe based) computers with PC type networked hardware. This will enable regular upgrades with new processors and data storage equipment. New software will introduce a Windows type interface, and joysticks. This is similar to an upgrade performed on American AWACS. French AWACS will remain able to closely cooperate with E-3 type AWACS used by other nations.
E-3 AWACS development began in the late 1960s, and 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 as 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 was later repeated in the 2003 Iraq war. 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.