NATO has begun looking at options for the provision of early warning and control after it retires its fleet of Boeing E-3A Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft in about 20 years' time.
Defence ministers from alliance member nations signed an agreement on 15 February to develop a follow-on capability for its AWACS surveillance aircraft after they are retired around 2035, a NATO official confirmed to Jane's.
"To ensure we stay ahead of the curve, ministers agreed today to develop a follow-on capability for our AWACS planes after they retire … This will help deal with challenges from our southern neighbourhood, and support our defence and deterrence against any threat," NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters. This agreement followed an initial decision to look at options that was taken by NATO heads of state and governments at the Warsaw Summit in 2016.
Jane's understands that this concept stage study will run through to about 2022, at which time a decision will be made on how best to proceed with a potential procurement programme.
"NATO will carefully examine many alternatives, including their costs, in order to inform which direction NATO will take in the future," the official told Jane's, adding that the alliance has not yet decided if the capability will necessarily be carried over onto another aircraft type, noting that the AWACS mission could in the future be fulfilled by a mix of systems in the air, on the ground, and in space.
Based on a modified Boeing 707/320 commercial airframe, the E-3 is built around a 9.1 m-diameter rotating radome that sits atop the fuselage. This radar has a range of more than 400 km (which equates to a coverage area of more than 500,000 km2 of airspace) to look down and detect, identify, and track low-flying aircraft over land or water.
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