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The NATO E-3A Sentry Component; Geilenkirchen, June 30, 2017

35 Years NATO E-3A Component, part 1; Text and Photograph's by Alex van Noye

This year the NATO E-3 Component is celebrating its 35 anniversary. To celebrate this, a small open house was held at Geilenkirchen Air Base. Geilenkirchen is the most important airbase of the E-3 Component. The E-3 Sentry fleet of NATO has been responsible for the safety of European airspace for more than 35 years.

The history of the E-3 Component started in the early seventies when several NATO studies showed that an air traffic warning system (Airborne Early Warning, AEW) would be important. The research showed that with such a system the response times to an attack by the Soviet Union would be shortened drastically. The Alliance's existing airspace defense system was therefore drastically reinforced. In December 1978, the members of the NATO Defense Planning Committee (DPC) signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for the purchase and operational use of an AEW system. This decision by NATO member states has launched NATO's largest joint purchasing program of that era. The NATO Airborne Early Warning & Control Force (NAEW&CF) was established in January 1980. The headquarters of this NAEW&CF was established in Geilenkirchen in Germany. The NAEW&CF received two units with an operational capacity to jointly monitor European airspace 24 hours a day and 365 days a year. These units were the NATO E-3A Component in Geilenkirchen in Germany with sixteen E-3A Sentry aircraft and the E-3D Component of the Royal Air Force (RAF) at RAF Waddington in the United Kingdom with six E-3D Sentry aircraft. This British component was manned exclusively by RAF personnel. At the end of 1988, the E-3A Component was declared fully operational. The E-3D Component reached its full operational status on July 1, 1992.

In addition to the two operational units equipped with the E-3 Sentry, the Mission Systems Engineering Center (MSEC) is a separate unit based in Geilenkirchen in Germany. The MSEC provides technical services for the E-3A Component. These services consist of maintaining and updating the flight systems, the radar systems and the ground support systems. In addition, the MSEC remains unique due to the fact that it also has technical and laboratory facilities at the airbase in which the systems are continuously under development. The organization is therefore fully committed to the

development of the E-3A mission systems. The NAEW&CF is guided on a rotational basis by a USAF general and a German Luftwaffe general. The deputy commander is a RAF Air Commodore. The commander of the NAEW&CF reports directly to the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR). This command is stationed in Belgium in Bergen (Mons). A total of 17 NATO member states take part in the NAEW&CF program. These countries are Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States. Fifteen of these countries provide military personnel to the E-3A Component. The UK does not provide staff because they have their own E-3D Component in Great Britain. Luxembourg also does not provide staff.

The construction of the E-3A component began in January 1980. In October 1980, the E-3A Component was given the status of an international military component with its own headquarters under the command of the NATO DPC. The flight operations started in February 1982 after the delivery of the first E-3A Sentry aircraft. The E-3A Component was officially activated on June 28, 1982. The E-3A Component has a unique place in military history in Europe because it was the first multinational operational unit which was established by the NATO alliance. The mission of the component is to perform all surveillance and combat management tasks assigned by the NAEW&CF Commander who operates under the command of the SACEUR. The Commander of the E-3A Component has the rank of Brigade General during his function and is alternately an American or a German. The deputy commander is always a colonel of the Dutch Royal Netherlands Air Force. The structure of the E-3A Component consists of three wings, namely; the Operations Wing, the Logistics Wing and the Base Support Wing. Each wing is led by a colonel of a country which participates in the NAEW&CF program. The Operations Wing is the only wing which has airborne equipment and consists of three squadrons, namely; Flying Squadron 1, Flying Squadron 2 and Flying Squadron 3. All these units are equipped with the E-3A Sentry. Approximately thirty multinational crews from 15 of the 28 NATO member states are assigned to the two operational squadrons of the E-3A component. These crews are trained at the training squadron of the wing.

Only a maximum number of E-3A Sentry aircraft is normally present at the Geilenkirchen Air Base. The other aircraft are deployed from the Forward Operating Bases (FOB) which are spread throughout Europe. All these FOBs are under the command of the headquarters in Geilenkirchen. These FOBs are located in the following countries; in Preveza/Aktion in Greece, in Trapani in Italy, in Konya in Turkey and in ├śrland in Norway. The FOBs are each located at a national military airbase of that particular country. The E-3A Component has sixteen E-3A Sentry radar aircraft. These modified Boeing 707s are easily identified by the large radar mounted on top of the fuselage. The E-3A Sentry usually works at an altitude of about 10 km. From this height, a single E-3A can constantly monitor the airspace within a radius of more than 400 km. During these missions, information can be exchanged via digital data connections with ground units, fighter planes and units at sea. Using the pulse Doppler radar, an E-3A flying within the NATO airspace can distinguish between targets and ground reflections. The aircraft can therefore give an early warning for low- or high-flying aircraft which operate over the territory of a potential aggressor. From 1985 until 2011, the E-3A Component also used three Trainer Cargo Aircraft (TCAs). These aircraft were a modified version of the Boeing 707-320C and were referred to as the CT-49A. The last TCA was retired from service in December 2011.

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