NATO Eyes Antimissile Gains in Surveillance-Plane Upgrades

A NATO airborne warning and control system, or "AWACS," aircraft takes off from an alliance air base at Geilenkirchen, Germany, in March 2011. Officials have begun discussions for replacing the surveillance aircraft with a more-capable fleet sometime in the 2030s.
National Journal
Sebastian Sprenger
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Sebastian Sprenger
April 23, 2014, 10:26 a.m.

NATO has be­gun ini­tial de­lib­er­a­tions for up­grad­ing the al­li­ance’s sur­veil­lance-air­craft fleet, with an eye to­ward im­prov­ing its mis­sile-de­fense cap­ab­il­it­ies.

At is­sue is the way for­ward in re­pla­cing the al­li­ance-owned Air­borne Early Warn­ing and Con­trol air­craft — Boe­ing E-3 Sen­try planes com­monly known by the ac­ronym AWACS — some­time in the 2030s. Giv­en the ex­pect­a­tion of a long ac­quis­i­tion pro­cess for the pro­ject, some of­fi­cials be­lieve that the time is now to be­gin plan­ning.

De­fense ac­quis­i­tion lead­ers from the United States, France, the United King­dom, Ger­many, and Italy dis­cussed plans on April 2 at a so-called Five Powers meet­ing in Brus­sels, ac­cord­ing to the gath­er­ing’s writ­ten agenda pre­pared for par­ti­cipants.

The NATO In­dus­tri­al Ad­vis­ory Group, a pan­el of de­fense-in­dustry ex­ec­ut­ives provid­ing coun­sel on mil­it­ary hard­ware, has ad­di­tion­ally be­gun study­ing what kinds of new tech­no­lo­gies should go in­to the next-gen­er­a­tion air­craft, ac­cord­ing to the sum­mary of a March 31 meet­ing ob­tained by Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire.

While there is not yet a form­al, al­li­ance-ap­proved re­quire­ments list for the new plane, sup­port­ing theat­er-level mis­sile de­fense is among the op­er­a­tion­al scen­ari­os en­vi­sioned for the new cap­ab­il­ity, ac­cord­ing to the doc­u­ment. One NATO in­sider said un­der con­sid­er­a­tion is the field­ing of mis­sile-track­ing sensors that would de­tect in­com­ing pro­jectiles and sup­ply ground-based in­ter­cept­ors with tar­get­ing data.

Such a cap­ab­il­ity — along with oth­er planned en­hance­ments for areas like mari­time sur­veil­lance, in­tel­li­gence sup­port, or the com­mand and con­trol of forces — would take the en­vi­sioned up­grades “far bey­ond” what the al­li­ance’s cur­rent AWACS fleet can do, the in­sider said. The source spoke with GSN on con­di­tion of an­onym­ity to of­fer more candor on the emer­ging trans-At­lantic top­ic, which is ex­pec­ted to come up at the Septem­ber NATO sum­mit in Wales.

An in­ter­im re­port by the in­dustry ad­visers is ex­pec­ted in Au­gust; the fi­nal ver­sion is due in April 2015.

Some AWACS planes were dis­patched to con­duct sur­veil­lance flights over Po­land and Ro­mania last month amid ten­sions with Rus­sia over Mo­scow’s ac­tions in Ukraine.

“This em­ploy­ment in­creases the un­der­stand­ing of what is hap­pen­ing in the re­gion, in­clud­ing in Ukraine, for NATO al­lies,” the al­li­ance said on its web­site.

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