14 January 2023
On 12 January NATO announced that it will be deploying three Airborne Warning and Control System surveillance planes, or AWACS, to Romania next week to perform reconnaissance missions and to “monitor Russian military activity” within alliance territory. The AWACS (Boeing E-3 Sentry planes) are part of a fleet of 14 aircraft usually based at Geilenkirchen in Germany. Three of the aircraft will be sent on 17 January to an airbase near Romania’s capital, Bucharest, on a mission expected to last several weeks, NATO said in a statement.
The planes “can detect aircraft hundreds of kilometers away, making them a key capability for NATO’s deterrence and defence posture,” NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu said in the statement.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, NATO has increased its military presence on Europe’s eastern flank, including by sending additional battlegroups to Romania, Bulgaria and Slovakia.
AWACS have conducted “regular patrols over eastern Europe and the Baltic Sea region to track Russian warplanes near NATO borders” throughout the Russia-Ukraine war, the statement said. Along with a small drone fleet in Italy, the AWACS are among the few military assets that NATO owns as an alliance.
Some of the AWACS were deployed to the United States after the 11 September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre towers and the Pentagon (Operation Eagle Assist), and they were also deployed during NATO’s military intervention in Libya in 2011. Beyond their role as NATO’s ‘eye in the sky’, the AWACS can be used for air-policing, support in counter-terrorism or evacuation operations, and provide help during natural disasters.
The AWACS were jointly purchased at a cost of almost $8 billion in 1977 at the height of the Cold War, with the first aircraft delivered in January 1982. Regular refurbishments, including a Final Lifetime Extension Programme (2019-26), will ensure that they keep flying until 2035. The NATO Support and Procurement Agency (NSPA) awarded three contracts in April 2022—each for €15.5 million—for Risk Reduction and Feasibility Studies (RRFS) associated with a replacement programme for the AWACS, known as the Alliance Future Surveillance and Control (AFSC) programme. The feasibility studies will explore ways in which NATO can conduct surveillance and control after 2035. NATO launched the AFSC programme in 2016, and the concept stage was initiated in February 2017. Following initial high-level concept studies, the RRFS stage was launched in July 2021.