NATO benefits from the military expertise and capabilities of its members. When it comes to asking member nations about their contributions for operations and missions, it's about providing troops, and also about providing equipment and resources. While NATO doesn't have its own forces and depends on its Allies, the Alliance does have some of its own assets and equipment.
One of NATO's assets are the E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (E-3 AWACS). In the military history of NATO the AWACS fleet stands out as one of the first established integrated multinational aviation units. Since its inception in the late 1970's, the AWACS fleet was constantly part of military missions and also used for the defense during major events. It has proven its role as a key asset in crisis management and peace-support operations.
From a basic technical viewpoint, AWACS is a flying radar system that supports onground communication during tactical and defensive missions from the air. With the aim of early detection and advance warning, AWACS task is airborne reconnaissance and surveillance. Furthermore it is used as an airborne operations control centre. AWACS ensures mission effectiveness and a high-readiness NATO Airborne Early Warning & Control Force (NAEW&C Force) capable of supporting Alliance objectives. It also ensures safe and professional mission execution and develops efficient and effective processes to meet future force requirements.
Stationed at Geilenkirchen Air Base, Germany, a fleet of 14 E-3 AWACS aircraft are ready to use. The AWACS aircraft are commercial Boeing 707 that are around 50 metres long and have a wingspan of around 40 metres in total. These formerly commercial aircrafts have been modified with rotating radar domes on their fuselage. They can start with a maximum weight of approximately 150.000 kg, for example: that is equal to three times the weight of an fullgrown sperm whale. It can also reach destinations up to 9.000 km in distance, that's the linear distance from Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) in Belgium to Los Angeles in the USA. The cruising altitude is about 9 km above ground. On board of the AWACS aircraft you will find a flight crew of about 16 service members from various NATO member states.
In collaboration with Boeing, NATO arranged new modernisations of the AWACS fleet in 2018. These modernisations included highly digitalised flight decks and new avionics to be prepared for what the future holds for the Alliance
Also in 2018, another important contract was established and and signed. The core acquisition contract that helps to ensure that the second critical asset NATO owns delivers effective capabilities that can be certified for operations globally.
This second asset is a fleet of RQ-4D remotely piloted aircraft under the guidance of the Alliance Ground Surveillance Programme (AGS). The AGS' main operating base is in Sigonella, Italy. These RQ-4D aircrafts are unmanned aerial vehicles, constantly mapping the ground below and are controlled by experienced pilots who remain on the ground.
The AGS fleet is integrated in the intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance structures of NATO. The AGS fleet provides area surveillance day and night with its incorporated radar-sensor that is autonomous, persistent and weather resistant. The AGS systems continuously detect and track moving objects throughout observed areas and provide radar based images of areas of interest and stationary objects to the command and control teams on the ground.
The AGS consists of three segments: the air segment, the ground segment and the support segment. The air segment consists of the RQ-4D aircraft. The ground segment consists of a number of ground stations (mobile and transportable, meaning they can be mobilized or deployed where needed). The AGS support segments includes mission support facilities that are mainly located at the AGS Main Operation Base in Sigonella.
With its primary function of high-altitude, long endurance intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance the AGS systems bring an impressively high standard of general characteristics such as a total range of more than 16.000 km. For example: that's the linear distance from Washington D.C. in the USA to Ankara in Turkey and back.
Both assets, AWACS and AGS, are purchased collectively, owned and operated by all Allies to provide their security.
NATO's deterrence and defence depends on its effective combination and integration of systems and forces trained to work together seamlessly. Investing in the right assets plays an important role when it comes to the success of the Alliance. With the AWACS and the AGS systems as "NATOS's eyes in the sky", NATO secures its role as the world's strongest and most powerful Alliance and exhibits some of our capabilities when it comes to providing security.
This is part six of the SHAPE Public Affairs' series "Knowing NATO". Following highlights will focus on NATO's operations and missions.