The market for Airborne Early Warning aircraft is undergoing a significant expansion in type, availability and number. What was once the purview of a select few nations is now becoming a fairly standard tool for second and even third-tier militaries. The change does not mean U.S. Air Force dominance will soon be threatened, however.
Airborne Early Warning (AEW) technology is becoming increasingly available and affordable on the open market. Similarly, the number of countries acquiring or seeking to acquire this capability is seeing a dramatic rise. AEW aircraft provide air forces with significantly improved airspace situational awareness. In times of crisis, AEW allows countries to monitor their borders closely for attack, and gives commanders a clearer understanding of — and in some cases a much more advanced capability to control and manage — both defensive and offensive operations. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union were the principal designers and builders of such aircraft. While there were a few exceptions (like the British modification to the Shackleton airframe which was exported to South Africa), any foreign interest in that capability generally entailed a deal with Washington or Moscow. Even then, there was a range of capabilities. One side of the spectrum was the large U.S. Air Force E-3 Sentry airborne warning and control system — better known as the AWACS — that combined a powerful radar with an airborne command center capable of coordinating the efforts of aircraft in its area of responsibility. At the other end of the spectrum was the U.S. Navy's E-2 Hawkeye, a carrier-based AEW platform with a crew of only five and much more limited command-and-control capacity. The E-2 was an attractive cheaper alternative AEW platform, which sold to Taiwan, Israel, Singapore and Egypt, among others. Israel would later re-export its Hawkeyes to Mexico, which is beginning to explore the technology's applicability to counternarcotics operations. (Airborne platforms are much better suited for spotting low-level smuggler flights.) But the real shift has come only recently. Though the Hawkeye is still a hot commodity on the export market, it is seeing increased competition from Saab, Boeing Co. and Elta Electronics. Brazil, Sweden, Greece and Mexico now are all operating AEW platforms based on the Swedish-designed and -built Eireye radar. These designs are mounted on the Embraer 145. (Sweden uses its own Saab airframes.) This is a more rudimentary system noteworthy mostly for its affordability and the nascent AEW capability it is bringing to these countries for the first time. Boeing's Wedgetail is a much more advanced offering. The Royal Australia Air Force will be the first to acquire Boeing's E-737 Wedgetail design. Its larger airframe can carry more electronics and a larger crew to facilitate more advanced airborne command-and-control functions. Turkey and South Korea already have decided to purchase this design; they probably will not be the last. Israeli companies also have been tinkering with radar for years. The Phalcon system has been one of the key non-U.S. vectors of AEW proliferation. Though Washington successfully blocked a deal between Israel and Beijing to upgrade China's capabilities, Israel continues to expand sales. The Phalcon has been especially attractive because of its flexibility; for example, Israel has offered to install it on old Russian Il-76 Candid or already modified A-50 Mainstay airframes. The Israeli Conformal Airborne Early Warning System The Conformal Airborne Early Warning System, the most recent Israeli advance, is by far the most interesting new AEW design. Built onto a Gulfstream 550 airframe and slated for deployment in Israel and Singapore, the conformal bulges house four active electronically scanned arrays. Like the much larger Wedgetail design, this configuration is both simpler and more powerful than more traditional mechanically manipulated systems. Obviously, not all these technologies are created equal; instead, they represent a broad swath of capability. This new renaissance of AEW technology is just the beginning. As Chinese systems mature, AEW platforms probably will become even more widely available to third-tier military powers that previously never imagined obtaining them. Even so, the air dominance of the U.S. Air Force is not going to come under challenge anytime soon. Though command-and-control capability and situational awareness are important stepping-stones in air operations, they are hardly a cure-all. It means less advanced air forces soon will begin to have the physical capability to conduct more complex offensive and defensive mission profiles and be more watchful and aware of their own airspace. Training, tactics and doctrine will have to adapt, however. And new capabilities create new dependences, which in turn create new vulnerabilities. Global airspace situational awareness thus is experiencing a noteworthy rise, and bears considerable scrutiny.