NATO upgrades its ageing ‘eyes in the sky’

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (R) and Sir Michael Arthur (L), President of Boeing International, give a press conference on the modernisation contract between NATO and Boeing AWACS at the Melsbroek Airport near Brussels, Belgium, 27 November 2019. [EPA-EFE/STEPHANIE LECOCQ]

Boeing, the world’s largest aerospace company, signed a $1 billion contract to modernise NATO’s fleet of AWACS surveillance aircraft on Wednesday (27 November), striking a more optimistic note at a time of widening cracks in the transatlantic defence alliance.

First flown in 1982 and repeatedly modernised since, the Boeing-made AWACS will be overhauled with more powerful computer processors, servers and equipment in order to keep the military assets in service until 2035, NATO officials announced.

One of the main tasks performed by the planes is monitoring airspace, including the detection of hostile aircraft, missiles, ships and slow-moving air objects over distances of more than 410 kilometres.

Full real-time monitoring, conducted from a safe distance, and direct analysis of the data obtained are supposed to provide support for tactical and operational activities.

Flying at an altitude of around 9.000 metres, one single plane can monitor an area of ​​311,000 square kilometres, meaning that it takes only a few such aircraft to cover almost all of Europe and reach far beyond NATO borders, experts told EURACTIV.

“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”, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters, standing in front of one of the planes at the Belgian military base in Melsbroek, alongside Boeing President Michael Arthur.

NATO’s AWACS have flown missions gazing deep into Syria from Turkey, as well as along NATO’s Eastern flank in the wake of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, while also being part of NATO’s Air Policing Mission and providing air imaginary during natural disasters.

The upgrade will be funded by the 16 NATO allies participating in the AWACS programme – Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Turkey, and the United States – with parts of it subcontracted to European suppliers including Leonardo and Airbus.

The 14 planes, owned and operated by NATO member states, are currently based at an airbase in Germany. They can already exchange information via digital data links, with ground-based, sea-based and airborne commanders, but need a greater capacity to transmit data as technology develops.

“The modernisation will ensure that NATO remains at the leading edge of technology,” Stoltenberg said, adding that “it will provide AWACS with sophisticated new communications and networking capabilities, so these aircraft can continue their vital missions.”

The AWACS deal comes after the first of five Global Hawk drones that make up NATO’s Ground Surveillance program was transferred from the United States to its future base in Sicily.

The spy drones are intended to be operated together with the AWACS planes, being able to fly in all weather for up to 30 hours at a time, providing near real-time surveillance data.

One NATO official called the AWACS programme “a highly visible symbol of NATO unity”, as the flying crews are drawn from 18 different allies.

The modernisation agreement comes at a time when the alliance is in dire need of fresh signs of life after French President Emmanuel Macron declared NATO “brain dead” in a recent interview.

It also comes days before the military alliance’s anniversary summit in London, where US President Donald Trump is expected to refresh his demands for European allies to significantly step up their defence spending.

“NATO AWACS is a symbol of trans-Atlantic excellence, in terms of technology and partnership between Boeing, NATO and Europe. This modernisation programme will ensure the aircraft continue to thrive”, Boeing’s Arthur said in the press conference.

The recent high-tech equipment upgrades are part of NATO’s wider strategy to brace against new threats.

Stoltenberg also underlined that NATO continues to adapt and is already planning for the replacement of the AWACS in 2035, after experts have pointed out the need to include modern technologies.

“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,” he said.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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