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How is the NATO Airborne Early Warning & Control Force evolving to expand AEW capabilities?

At the beginning of the 1970s, NATO research showed that an airborne early warning (AEW) radar system would significantly enhance the Alliance’s air defence capability. By 1978, NATO’s Defence Planning Committee (DPC) had agreed to the purchase and implementation of a NATO-owned AEW system. There began NATO’s largest jointly funded acquisition program and only two years later, the NATO Airborne Early Warning & Control Force (NAEW&CF) was established.

Today the NAEW&CF Command (Belgium) is headed by Major Gen. Stephen D. Schmidt. Using a joint military and civilian staff from across the globe, Major General Schmidt’s Command represents 16 NATO nations providing AEW Command control and battle management capability in support of joint and NATO commanders. The NAEW&C Force Command is NATO’s only operational air command, made up of the E-3A Component in Geilenkirchen, Germany, and the E-3D Component at Royal Air Force Waddington, England.

How though is the NAEW&CF tending to its challenges? Alliance ground surveillance provides one possible solution with commanders benefitting from a clearer picture of the situation on the ground in areas of interest. Indeed only last month, NATO published an article proclaiming how the NATO-owned and -operated AGS Core capability will enable commanders “to look at what is happening on the earth’s surface, providing situational awareness before, during and, if necessary, after NATO operations”. What though are the implications for ISAF operations? A key indicator to may prove to be the results of Empire Challenge 10, the “multinational intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) demonstration that showcases emerging capabilities and provides lessons learned to improve joint and combined ISR interoperability” (Source: NATO Allied Command Transformation). Captain Mark Boettcher from Allied Command Transformation, Commander, Coalition Joint Task Force 781 described the exercise enthusiastically as a fundamental and joined up approach “…to give the battle commander the best possible essay so that he can make the decisions as required.”

In January 2011, Major General Schmidt will be sharing this message and his perspectives with the AEW community at Defence IQ’s 10th Annual Airborne Early Warning and Battle Management meeting. Coupled with his briefing on “Net-Centric Warfare And NATO AEW Battle Management Effects”, Major David Nolan, Chief of Ops Wing Tactics at NATO E-£A Wing, will be telling his peers training challenges and initiatives for future AWACS missions. How much will this transform the employment of the E-3A platform? What will the impact be on attempts for joint and combined ISR interoperability, as advocated by Captain Boettcher.

Undoubtedly, the AEW sphere is a complex space and even 40 years on, the NAEW&CF Command feels the pinch of a rapidly evolving and technologically demanding marketplace. Initiatives such as Empire Challenge 10 are of huge educational benefit to the 16 NATO nations represented but as the roles and missions expand for AEW capabilities, the NAEW&CF Command remains at the forefront of driving technological advancement, just as it did 40 years ago.

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