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An airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) system is an airborne radar system designed to detect aircraft. Used at a high altitude, the radars allow the operators to distinguish between friendly and hostile aircraft hundreds of miles away. AEW&C aircraft are used for defensive and offensive air operations. The system is used offensively to direct fighters to their target locations, and defensively to counter attacks. It can also be used to carry out surveillance, and C2BM (command and control, battle management) functions.
AEW&C is also known by the older terms “airborne early warning” (AEW) and “airborne warning and control system” (AWACS)
Modern AEW&C systems can detect aircraft from up to 250 miles (400 km) away, well out of range of most surface-to-air missiles. One AWACS plane flying at 30,000 feet (9,100 m) can cover an area of 120,460 square miles (312,000 km2). Three such aircraft in overlapping orbits can cover the whole of Central Europe. In air-to-air combat, AEW&C systems can communicate with friendly aircraft, extend their sensor range and give them added stealth, since they no longer need their own active radar to detect threats. However, by the nature of radar, AWACS aircraft can be detected by opposing forces beyond its own detection range. This is because the outgoing pulse reduces in strength the further it travels. Therefore, a signal intended to reflect back must be strong enough to cover at least twice the distance between the sender and the target—more in practice due to absorption losses.
The United Kingdom first deployed a substantial AEW capability with American Douglas AD-4W Skyraiders, designated Skyraider AEW.1, which in turn were replaced by the Fairey Gannet AEW.3, using the same AN/APS-20 radar. When the Gannet was withdrawn, the Royal Air Force (RAF) redeployed the radars from the Gannets on Avro Shackleton MR.2 airframes, redesignated Shackleton AEW.2. To replace the Shackleton AEW.2, an AEW variant of the Hawker Siddeley Nimrod, known as the Nimrod AEW3, was ordered in 1974. However, after a protracted and problematic development, this was cancelled in 1986, and seven E-3Ds, designated Sentry AEW1 in RAF service, were ordered instead.
The Russian Air Force is currently using around 15–20 Beriev A-50 and A-50U “Shmel” in the AEW role. The “Mainstay” is based on the military/commercial Ilyushin Il-76 airframe, with a large non-rotating radome on the rear fuselage.
The Indian Air Force ordered three IAI Phalcon systems in 2004, the first of which first arrived on May 25, 2009.
The Royal Australian Air Force and the Turkish Air Force are deploying Boeing 737 AEW&C aircraft. Unlike the E-2 and E-3, the Boeing 737 AEW&C does not have a radome. It will probably be marketed towards many existing E-2 customers, who would otherwise have no choice but to purchase a system intended for an aircraft carrier, due to lack of options.
The Swedish Air Force use the S 100B Argus as their AEW platform. The S 100B Argus is based on the Saab 340 with an Ericsson Erieye PS-890 radar.
In early 2006, the Pakistan Air Force ordered six Saab 2000 fitted with Erieye AEW systems from Sweden in a deal valued roughly $1bn In December 2006, the Pakistan Navyrequested three excess P-3 Orion aircraft equipped with Hawkeye 2000 AEW systems, the overall cost of the program is $855mn. China and Pakistan also signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) for the joint development of AEW&C systems. A total of $278m AWACS deal has been struck with China.
Some AEW systems feature additional command and control functionality, airborne warning and control system aircraft. These are often referred to as airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) systems.
Helicopter AEW systems
Sea King AEW.2A
There are only four helicopter-based AEW platforms in existence. One is the Royal Navy Sea King ASaC7 naval helicopter. It is operated from the Royal Navy’s Invincible-class aircraft carriers. The creation of Sea King ASaC7, and earlier AEW.2 and AEW.5 is the consequence of the harsh lessons learnt by the Royal Navy in the 1982 Falklands War when the lack of AEW coverage for the task force was a major tactical shortcoming. Also, the Spanish Navy fields the SH-3 Sea King in the very same role, operated from the carriers Principe de Asturias and Juan Carlos I
Another helicopter is the Russian-built Kamov Ka-31, deployed by Indian Navy on Krivak-III frigates and reportedly used by the Russian Navy on its sole Kuznetsov aircraft carrier. It is fitted with E-801M Oko (Eye) airborne electronic warfare radar that can track up to 20 targets simultaneously with aerial detection range 90 mi (150 km) and surface warships up to 160 mi (250 km).
The most modern helicopter-based AEW is the AgustaWestland EH101 AEW of the Italian Navy.