The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has announced a Life Extension Programme (LEP) for its Boeing E-3A Sentry airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) fleet, which aims to keep the aircraft operational until 2035.
On November 27, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg signed a contract, worth US$1bn, with Sir Michael Arthur, President of Boeing International, for the modernisation of the organisation's ageing fleet of E-3As – which first entered service with the alliance in 1982. The modernisation and LEP of NATO's E-3As – which is being funded by 16 NATO member states – build on its plan to keep the Sentry on operations until 2035, meaning the aircraft will be more than 50 years old by its retirement.
At the press conference – held at Melsbroek Airport, Brussels – Stoltenberg said that the modernisation will integrate "sophisticated new communications and networking capabilities" onto the alliance's E-3A platform.
"NATO AWACS have been our eyes in the sky, supporting our airborne operations for decades. From patrolling American skies after 9/11, to our operations in Afghanistan, and as part of the global coalition against ISIS. The modernisation will ensure NATO remains at the leading edge of technology", he added.
The age and future of the E-3 platform, not just in NATO service but in the air arms of the US and the UK, has been called into question in recent years, with the latter electing to retire its fleet in favour of the E-7A Wedgetail AEW&C aircraft. During the conference, Stoltenberg assured that the platform is still "cutting edge", despite the fleet's 35-plus years of service.
Longer term, NATO is also looking at how to replace its 14 Boeing 707-based AEW&C aircraft. This was addressed by the NATO secretary general, who added: "We are planning the replacement of the AWACS in 2035. Here again, NATO will work closely with industry. We will consider how technologies – like artificial intelligence, autonomous systems and big data – can help NATO keep its edge."
Details of the new communications and networking capabilities or associated equipment were not expanded upon at the conference, but Sir Michael Arthur confirmed Boeing's commitment to the programme, adding that it will be working with Airbus, Leonardo, Northrop Grumman and Thales, among others, to provide the modernisation.
The news follows the arrival of NATO's first Northrop Grumman RQ-4D Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) high-altitude long-endurance (HALE) unmanned aerial system (UAS) at Naval Air Station (NAS) Sigonella, Italy, on November 20. See here for more: NATO's first RQ-4D arrives at Sigonella.