Home » Why the E-3’s tail is coated in dielectric paint and why long-range missiles represent the only real threat to the AWACS

Why the E-3’s tail is coated in dielectric paint and why long-range missiles represent the only real threat to the AWACS

by Till Daisd
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The Boeing E-3 Sentry AWACS

The Boeing E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning & Control System (or AWACS) is a modified Boeing 707 equipped with long-range radar and passive sensors capable of detecting air and surface contacts over large distances. Users on land, at sea, or in the air can get information gathered by AWACS directly from the aircraft in almost real-time.

In addition to providing fighter control over allied aircraft, the AWACS is capable of detecting, tracking, identifying, and reporting potentially hostile aircraft operating at low altitudes. It can simultaneously track and identify maritime contacts, and provide coordination support to allied surface forces.

Command and control battle management aircraft

As demonstrated throughout operations Odyssey Dawn/Unified Protector, Allied Force, Desert Storm, Enduring Freedom, and Iraqi Freedom, the E-3 Sentry is the best command and control battle management (C2BM) aircraft in the world. They provide radar surveillance and control in addition to providing senior leadership with time-critical information on the actions of enemy forces. Along with coordinating rescue efforts between military and civilian authorities, the E-3 has also been deployed to support humanitarian relief operations in the US in the wake of Hurricanes Rita and Katrina.

It was the first time in aerial warfare history that a whole air conflict was recorded thanks to the data collection capabilities of the E-3 radar and computer subsystems.

Hostile fighters Vs AWACS

Why don’t hostile fighters go after the AWACS before being engaged (and in many cases being shot down) by NATO fighter aircraft?

Jim Grupé, who was one of the systems engineers responsible for the design and development of AWACS, explains on Quora;

‘I was one of the systems engineers responsible for the design and development of AWACS. It happens that one of the studies I did was on the vulnerability of AWACS to enemy attack. This was in the 1970s when the E-3 plane was first produced, so my information is rather dated. I’m sure improvements have been made.

‘First off, AWACS had two basic mission types. In one case, the plane loitered at some distance and surveyed the horizon. I can’t give you numbers, but the radar is very accurate for a very long distance. (So accurate, we could tell by the radar signature what the target was, what armaments it was carrying, and how many were left.) In the event an enemy fighter came our way, we would simply call up our own fighters to take them out. I did the calculations for “probability of kill” in various scenarios, and the net of it is that AWACS was not likely to suffer any dents.

Long-Range Missiles Vs AWACS

‘The second case was more of a problem. This is where AWACS was over the battlefield, providing ground support. (Besides aircraft, we could pick out vehicles on the ground even under dense cover). The problem in this situation was that the enemy aircraft might be right below us, or at least quite close. For this situation, we would need our own forces to fly alongside. Unlike AWACS, however, their time in the air is much more limited, so we’d need constant cycling of our defensive forces. The probability of kill was still high, but not so high that every crew position didn’t have an escape hatch.

‘The real problem was long-range missiles. AWACS was radiating loudly on so many frequencies that a spit ball thrown into the air would likely be drawn to it by the static charge. Only a missile with a guidance system made in China might miss. Survivability was under 3 minutes unless the countermeasures were successful, which many times they are…. but many times, are not.’

E-3 AWACS contributed to the invention of stealth technology

Grupé continues;

‘So, we depended on careful deployment to NOT get us into those situations.

‘At this point, I think the best answer is that no fighter would go after AWACS because that would likely fail. But, if the enemy hoped to engage in any dogfighting, they had better start with a few long-range air defense missiles.’

According to Grupé, the AWACS also ‘contributed to the invention of stealth technology. You see, when AWACS turns and runs, its own tail got in the way of the radar and created a 30+ degree blind spot. After various solutions were considered, like inverting the tail, or making it out of some composite material, these were abandoned when someone discovered that they could make the tail all but disappear with a careful coating of a dielectric paint. WHOA! That *literally* saved AWACS’ ass, but very quickly became a VERY big secret… not to be mentioned again anywhere. It led to the F-117. But 40+ years later, it’s now out of the bag so it doesn’t matter anymore.’

E-3G crews break record for sequential flights flying 34 consecutive combat missions

Photo by Master Sgt. Dave Nolan / U.S. Air Force

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