The E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) represents the world's standard for airborne early warning systems. It fills the needs of both airborne surveillance, and command, control and communications (C3) functions for tactical and air defense forces. It provides a highly mobile and survivable surveillance and C3 platform.
The concept of the Airborne Warning and Control System originated in the mid-1960s, when developments in radar and airborne data processing made the "Control" part possible. Airborne Early Warning aircraft had been around since the end of the Second World War, but these were essentially radar sets which happened to be in an aircraft. AWACS actively manages the airspace around it, and this management requires a lot of data processing capacity.
Boeing was awarded the contract for the AWACS system on July 8th 1970, having beaten McDonnell Douglas' stretch DC-8 in the competition. Trials of competing Hughes and Westinghouse radars were held using a pair of rebuilt Boeing 707-320Bs, which were designated EC-137D. The first EC-137D flew on February 5th 1972. The Westinghouse radar won the competition.
The first E-3 airframe was rolled out at Boeing's Seattle plant on February 1st 1972.
In November 1974 the US Air Force authorised Boeing to proceed with production of the E-3, although Congress insisted on tests of the aircraft's combat survivability and radar-jamming resistance which ended (successfully) in April 1975.
Following the test and evaluation process, the first E-3A was delivered to the 552nd Airborne Warning and Control Wing on March 23rd 1977. The last of the USAF's 34 aircraft was delivered in June 1984.
The NATO nations found the potential capabilities of the E-3 attractive for the defence of Europe, and discussions began in 1975. Unfortunately, delays in approving funding for 27 aircraft led to the UK pulling out in March 1977, because the RAF urgently needed a replacement for the AEW Shackleton. The British Government placed an order for eleven Nimrod AEW aircraft, a development of the Nimrod MPA.
NATO finally agreed to purchase 18 E-3As at the end of 1977. Deliveries began in early 1982, and the last aircraft was delivered in 1985.
The next country to place an order was Saudi Arabia, under the Peace Sentinel program which began in 1981. The Saudis eventually received 5 E-3As and 8 KE-3 tankers. Deliveries began in June 1986 and were completed in September 1987.
By the end of 1985 it was obvious that the Nimrod AEW project was nowhere near meeting the RAF's specification, and the British government re-opened the competition for a new AEW aircraft. Boeing was invited to tender in March 1986, and a contract for six E-3s was signed in February 1987.
At about the same time France was also looking for a new AEW aircraft. Boeing submitted a proposal in December 1986, and the French government signed a contract for three aircraft in February 1987. An Anglo-French Management Office was set up to manage the program. By the end of 1987 both governments had exercised options for one more aircraft each.
The first E-3D Sentry for the RAF was handed over on March 24th 1991. The first French E-3F followed in May 1991. Deliveries were complete in May 1992.
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