NATO said on Wednesday that it will replace its aging fleet of AWACS surveillance aircraft, which has been in use since the end of the Cold War in the 1980s, with a militarized Boeing 737 commercial jet. The agreement is probably worth billions of euros.
The AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) planes, which resemble flying radar towers and are distinguishable by the nine-meter-wide radomes on their backs, have been NATO’s eyes in the sky since 1982.
The modern, upgraded Boeing 707 airplanes have rotating radar that allows them to identify aircraft beyond 400 kilometers (250 miles) away.
According to NATO, they can monitor a region of around 300,000 square kilometers (115,000 sq miles), roughly the size of Poland. They can also identify ground targets, like ships.
NATO plans to buy six Boeing E-7 A Wedgetail aircraft to replace the outdated AWACS aircraft. The contract is expected to be signed in 2024, and the first aircraft will be operational by 2031. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg stated, “I welcome allies’ commitment to investing in high-end capabilities, and I believe surveillance and control aircraft are crucial for NATO’s collective defense.”
“This investment in state-of-the-art technology shows the strength of transatlantic defense cooperation as we continue to adapt to a more unstable world.” The alliance stated that the new aircraft would be more expensive and have better capabilities than their predecessors. Still, it could not explain its decision to replace its fleet of 14 AWACS aircraft with only six Wedgetail jets.
Turkey, the United States, and Britain also fly or intend to operate the Wedgetail. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the AWACS fleet, which is stationed at the German Geilenkirchen Airbase, has been extensively utilized for NATO surveillance operations along the alliance’s eastern flank.
The aircraft has supported summit meetings, NATO operations in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and significant events like the 2006 World Cup in Germany. AWACS aircraft may guide NATO combat fighters to their objectives during a battle and provide allied fighter jets, ships, and control centers with a radar image. The aircraft is one of the few tangible assets that NATO has, and 19 of the 31 member states comprise the crew.