Born in the coldest days of the Cold War, one of the missions at Tinker Air Force Base maintains its relevance, despite shifts in military strategy and technology in post-9/11 warfare.
From international terrorism to drug surveillance in South America to the enforcement of no-fly zones, the Airborne Warning and Control System remains a critical component of U.S. military operations domestic and abroad.
Dogfights and air battles may have become a thing of the past, but that's only because AWACS has made warfare in the skies nearly impossible for most enemies to the United States, said Maj. Doug Bone, mission crew commander, during a June 11 training exercise.
“Part of Air Force direction is to destroy the other guy's ability to wage war on us,” Bone said. “We want to prevent him from utilizing the aircraft to begin with.”
In an E-3 Sentry several miles above northeastern Oklahoma, Bone and officers with the 552nd Air Control Wing worked battlefield control for several F-16s participating in a mock air attack.
With bleeps and multicolored dots and lines crisscrossing a black computer console, radar technicians and electronic combat officers worked to distinguish friendly aircraft from foes, pinpoint the location and direction of each plane.
Like an airborne air traffic control system, the dozen-plus men and women who staff each E-3 are the U.S. military's eyes in the sky. They experts in math, radar, computer and radio technology, Bone said.
“You have to also be very good at visualizing spatial relationships,” he said. “Air traffic controllers try to keep planes apart — we bring planes together.”
The system AWACS relies on is a leftover from the 1970s, but its reliability for this particular operation has persisted despite technology upgrades in nearly every other facet of military intelligence. The Air Force is in the process of upgrading the E-3 interfaces, Bone said, but even then the fundamentals will remain the same.
The airframe itself is a modified Boeing 707/303 that carries a load of highly sensitive radar, mapping and communication systems. The equipment allows for surveillance from land to stratosphere, with a radius of at least 250 miles.
Twenty-eight E-3s, worth more than $270 million each, have parking spaces at Tinker, and several more are situated around the world.
The E-3 is most recognizable for the large, flat dome that protrudes from the top of the fuselage — its “giant cookie,” said Master Sgt. Stephen Stencel, an airborne radar technician with more than 3,000 hours on the aircraft.