NATO Awards Contracts for AWACS Replacement Studies

 - April 4, 2022, 6:01 AM
NATO's E-3s will be over 50 years old at the time of their planned retirement. They are powered by the aging TF33 low-bypass ratio turbofan, as are the E-3Gs of the U.S. Air Force, which are due to be replaced in the coming years. (Photo: NATO)

The NATO Support and Procurement Agency (NSPA) has awarded three contracts—each for €15.5 million ($17.1 million)—for Risk Reduction and Feasibility Studies (RRFS) associated with the Alliance Future Surveillance and Control (AFSC) program. The aims of this effort are to examine ways in which the organization can conduct surveillance and control following the planned retirement of the current Boeing E-3A Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) fleet around 2035.

The recipients of the RRFS contracts are two consortia and a single company. The ABILITI consortium is led by Boeing, with Indra (Spain), Leonardo (Italy), Thales (France), ESG and Lufthansa Technik (Germany), and Mott MacDonald (UK). Meanwhile, Airbus and Northrop Grumman lead the ASPAARO (Atlantic Strategic Partnership for Advanced All-domain Resilient Operations) team, which includes BAE Systems (UK), Lockheed Martin and IBM (USA), Kongsberg (Norway), GMV Aerospace (Spain), and Exence (Poland). The third contract has been awarded to General Atomics. While it is not leading a formal consortium, the company is working with ViaSat, Leidos, Saab Sensis and Raytheon from the USA, along with Rohde und Schwarz (Germany), Sener Aerospatiale (Spain), and Leonardo (UK).

NATO launched the AFSC program in 2016, and the concept stage was initiated in February 2017. Following initial high-level concept studies, the RRFS stage was launched in July 2021, with 65 companies nominated in the bidding. Seven proposals were received in November, of which the three most promising have been awarded RRFS contracts.

Under the contracts, the three bidders will develop a technical concept and assess its feasibility and implementation risks, as well as provide estimates for life-cost and analysis of intellectual property rights. AFSC is expected to employ a system-of-systems approach, potentially combining air, ground, maritime and space assets. The graphic accompanying the ASPAARO bid, for example, depicts a radar-equipped Airbus A330 tanker as part of a wider multi-domain network that includes satellites.

The first of 18 E-3A AWACS aircraft—based on the 707 airframe—entered service with the E-3A Component of the NATO Airborne Early Warning Force (NAEWF) in 1982, with 14 aircraft remaining in service. The aircraft are registered in Luxembourg and operate from the main base at Geilenkirchen in Germany and forward operating locations in Greece (Preveza), Italy (Trapani), Norway (Ørland), and Turkey (Konya). NATO E-3s have been flying regular patrols over Poland and Romania from Geilenkirchen and Konya during the ongoing war in Ukraine. The aircraft have been updated over the years, and in November 2019 NATO signed a $1 billion contract with Boeing for modernization and support to keep the fleet operational until 2035.

The NAEWF can also draw on the four E-3F aircraft operated by France, although the UK’s E-3D Sentry AEW.Mk 1 fleet was retired in August 2021. Three of the aircraft have subsequently been sold to Chile, with crew training currently being undertaken in the UK, and another was sold to the U.S. Navy to act as an aircrew trainer for the E-6B fleet.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Air Force has launched a program to replace its own AWACS aircraft, which are designated E-3G. Boeing was handed a single-source contract in October 2021 to study and analyse the activities required to make its 737 airliner-based E-7 Wedgetail suitable for USAF operations. The E-7 is in service with Australia, South Korea and Turkey, and has been ordered by the UK to replace its retired E-3s. Other AWACS operators around the world are Saudi Arabia, which flies E-3As, and Japan, whose E-767s feature the AWACS system installed in a Boeing 767 airframe.