Boeing E-3 Sentry

The Boeing E-3 Sentry, commonly known as AWACS, is an airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft developed by Boeing as the prime contractor. Derived from the Boeing 707, it provides all-weather surveillance, command, control and communications, and is used by the United States Air Force (USAF), NATO, Royal Air Force (RAF), French Air Force and Royal Saudi Air Force. The E-3 is distinguished by the distinctive rotating radar dome above the fuselage. Production ended in 1992 after 68 aircraft had been built.

In the mid-1960s, the USAF was seeking an aircraft to replace its piston-engined Lockheed EC-121 Warning Star, which had seen service for over a decade. After issuing preliminary development contracts to three companies, the USAF picked Boeing to construct two airframes to test Westinghouse Electric's and Hughes's competing radars. Both radars used Pulse-Doppler technology, with Westinghouse's design emerging as the contract winner. Testing on the first production E-3 began in October 1975.

The first USAF E-3 was delivered in March 1977, and during the next seven years, a total of 34 aircraft were manufactured. NATO, as a single identity, also had eighteen aircraft manufactured, basing them in Germany. The E-3 was also sold to the United Kingdom (seven) and France (four) and Saudi Arabia (five, plus eight E-3 derived tanker aircraft). In 1991, by which time the last aircraft had been delivered, E-3s participated in Operation Desert Storm, playing a crucial role of directing Coalition aircraft against the enemy. Throughout the aircraft's service life, numerous upgrades were performed to enhance its capabilities. In 1996, Westinghouse Electric was acquired by Northrop before being renamed Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems, which currently supports the E-3's radar.

Boeing E-3 Sentry
Class Aircraft
Type Reconnaissance
Manufacturer Boeing
Origin United States of America
Country Name Origin Year
United States of America 1975
Country Name Operational Year Retirement Year
France View
Germany View
Saudi Arabia View
United Kingdom - UK (Great Britain) View
United States of America 1977 View
ManufacturerName Production From Production To Quantity
Boeing 68 View


In 1963, the USAF asked for proposals for an Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) to replace its EC-121 Warning Stars, which had served in the airborne early warning role for over a decade. The new aircraft would take advantage of improvements in radar technology which allowed airborne radars to "look down" and detect low-flying aircraft (see Look-down/shoot-down), even over land, which was previously impractical due to ground clutter Contracts were issued to Boeing, Douglas and Lockheed, the latter being eliminated in July 1966. In 1967, a parallel program was put into place to develop the radar, with Westinghouse Electric and the Hughes Aircraft being asked to compete in producing the radar system. In 1968 it was referred to as Overland Radar Technology (ORT) during development tests on the modified EC-121Q. The Westinghouse's radar antenna was going to be used by whichever company won the radar competition, since Westinghouse had pioneered in the design of high-power RF phase-shifters.

Boeing initially proposed a purpose-built aircraft, but tests indicated that it would not outperform the already-operational 707, so the latter was chosen instead. To increase endurance, this design was to be powered by eight General Electric TF34s, or carrying its radar in a rotating dome mounted at the top of a forward-swept tail, above the fuselage. Boeing was selected ahead of McDonnell Douglas's DC-8-based proposal in July 1970. Initial orders were placed for two aircraft, designated EC-137D as test beds to evaluate the two competing radars. As the test-beds did not need the same 14-hour endurance demanded of the production aircraft, the EC-137s retained the Pratt & Whitney JT3D commercial engines, and a later reduction in endurance requirement led to retaining the normal engines in production.

The first EC-137 made its maiden flight on 9 February 1972, with the fly-off between the two radars taking place during March–July that year. Favorable test results saw the selection of Westinghouse's radar for the production aircraft. Hughes's radar was initially thought to be a certain winner, simply because much of its design was also going into the new F-15 Eagle's radar program. The Westinghouse radar used a pipelined Fast Fourier Transform (FFT) to digitally resolve 128 Doppler frequencies, while Hughes's radars used analog filters based on the design for the F-15 fighter. Westinghouse's engineering team won this competition by using a programmable 18-bit computer whose software could be modified before each mission. This computer was the AN/AYK-8 design from the B-57G program, and designated AYK-8-EP1 for its much expanded memory. This radar also multiplexed a Beyond The Horizon (BTH) pulse mode that could complement the pulse-Doppler radar mode. This proved to be beneficial especially when the BTH mode is used to detect ships at sea when the radar beam is directed below the horizon.

Full-scale development

Approval was given on 26 January 1973 for full-scale development of the AWACS system. To allow further development of the aircraft's systems, orders were placed for three pre-production aircraft, the first of which performed its maiden flight in February 1975. To save costs, the endurance requirements were relaxed allowing the new aircraft to retain the four JT3D (US Military designation TF33) engines. IBM and Hazeltine were selected to develop the mission computer and display system. The IBM computer receiving the designation 4PI, and the software is written in JOVIAL. A Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) or Back-Up Interceptor Control (BUIC) operator would immediately be at home with the track displays and tabular displays, but differences in symbology would create compatibility problems in tactical ground radar systems in Iceland, Europe and Korea over Link-11 (TADIL-A).

Modifications to the Boeing 707 for the E-3 Sentry included a rotating radar dome, single-point ground refueling, air refueling, and a bail-out chute. The original design called for two bail-out chutes (one forward, and one aft) but the aft bail-out chute was deleted as a way to cut mounting costs. Engineering, test and evaluation began on the first E-3 Sentry in October 1975. During 1977–1992, a total of 68 E-3s were built.

Future status

Because the Boeing 707 is no longer in production, the E-3 mission package has been fitted into the Boeing E-767 for the Japan Air Self Defense Forces. The E-10 MC2A was intended to replace USAF E-3s—along with the RC-135 and the E-8—but the E-10 program was canceled by the Department of Defense. The USAF is now performing a series of incremental improvements, mainly to avionics, to bring the E-3 up to current standards of performance. Boeing is flight testing its Block 40/45 E-3s. This modified E-3 contains upgrades of the mission crew and air battle management sections, as well as significantly upgraded electronic equipment.

Another program that the Air Force is considering is the "Avionics Modernization Program" (AMP). AMP would equip the E-3s with glass cockpits. The Air Force also wants modified E-3s with jet engines that are more reliable than the original ones, and also with at least 19% higher fuel efficiencies. New turbofan engines would give these E-3s longer ranges, longer time-on-station, and a shorter critical runway length. If the modification is carried out, the E-3s could take off with full fuel loads using runways only 10,000 feet (3,000 m) long, and also at higher ambient temperatures and lower barometric pressures, such as from bases in mountainous areas. Now that the E-8 Joint STARS are being fitted with the new Pratt & Whitney JT8D-219 turbofans, which are stated as having one-half the cost of the competing engine, the CFM56, the Air Force is again studying the possibility of replacing the E-3's original turbofan engines with more-efficient ones.

Upgrading NATO's E-3 fleet is complicated by the heterogeneity of the fleet's equipment. Each NATO member's E-3 aircraft are configured differently, and NATO has not finalized upgrade or replacement plans. The airplanes themselves can be flown to 2050 with appropriate maintenance, but as the world-wide fleet of 707 aircraft dwindles, supporting the E-3 becomes more difficult.

The E-3 Sentry's airframe is a modified Boeing 707-320B Advanced model. USAF and NATO E-3s have an unrefueled range of some 4,000 mi (6,400 km) or eight hours of flying. The newer E-3 versions bought by France, Saudi Arabia and the UK are equipped with newer CFM56-2 turbofan engines, and these can fly for about 11 hours or about 5,000 mi (8,000 km). The Sentry's range and on-station time can be increased through air-to-air refueling and the crews can work in shifts by the use of an on-board crew rest and meals area.

When deployed, the E-3 monitors an assigned area of the battlefield and provides information for commanders of air operations to gain and maintain control of the battle; whilst as an air defense asset, E-3s can detect, identify and track airborne enemy forces far from the boundaries of the U.S. or NATO countries and can direct fighter-interceptor aircraft to these targets. In support of air-to-ground operations, the E-3 can provide direct information needed for interdiction, reconnaissance, airlift and close-air support for friendly ground forces.


  • EC-137D   
  • E-3A 
  • KE-3A
  • E-3B
  • E-3C
  • JE-3C
  • E-3D
  • E-3F
  • E-3G

In March 1977 the 552nd Airborne Warning and Control Wing (now the 552d Air Control Wing) at Tinker AFB, Oklahoma received the first E-3 aircraft. The 34th and last USAF Sentry was delivered in June 1984. In March 1996, the USAF activated the 513th Air Control Group (513 ACG), an ACC-gained Air Force Reserve Command (AFRC) AWACS unit under the Reserve Associate Program. Collocated with the 552 ACW at Tinker AFB, the 513 ACG which performs similar duties on active duty E-3 aircraft shared with the 552 ACW.

The USAF have a total of thirty-one E-3s in active service. Twenty-seven are stationed at Tinker AFB and belong to the Air Combat Command (ACC). Four are assigned to the Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) and stationed at Kadena AB, Okinawa and Elmendorf AFB, Alaska. One aircraft (TS-3) was assigned to Boeing for testing and development (retired/scrapped June 2012).

In 1977 Iran placed an order for ten E-3's, however this order was cancelled following the 1979 revolution.

NATO acquired 18 E-3As and support equipment for a NATO air defense force. Since all aircraft must be registered with a certain country, the decision was made to register the 18 NATO Sentries with Luxembourg, a NATO member that previously did not have any air force. The first NATO E-3 was delivered in January 1982. The eighteen E-3s were operated by Number 1, 2 and 3 Squadrons of NATO's E-3 Component, based at NATO Air Base Geilenkirchen. Presently 17 NATO E-3As are in the inventory, since one E-3 was lost in a crash.

The United Kingdom and France are not part of the NATO E-3A Component, instead procuring E-3 aircraft through a joint project. The UK and France operate their E-3 aircraft independently of each other and of NATO. The UK operates six aircraft (with a seventh now retired) and France operates four aircraft, all fitted with the newer CFM56-2 engines. The British requirement came about following the cancellation of the British Aerospace Nimrod AEW3 project to replace the Avro Shackleton AEW2 during the 1980s. The UK E-3 order was placed in February 1987, with deliveries starting in 1990. The other operator of the type, delivered between June 1986 and September 1987, is Saudi Arabia which operates five aircraft, all fitted with CFM56-2 engines, This particular sale was hotly contested between the Reagan administration and opponents of the sale

E-3 Sentry aircraft were among the first to deploy during Operation Desert Shield, where they immediately established as an around-the-clock radar screen to defend against Iraqi forces. During Operation Desert Storm, E-3s flew 379 missions and logged 5,052 hours of on-station time. The data collection capability of the E-3 radar and computer subsystems allowed an entire air war to be recorded for the first time in history. In addition to providing senior leadership with time-critical information on the actions of enemy forces, E-3 controllers assisted in 38 of the 41 air-to-air kills recorded during the conflict. NATO and RAF E-3s participated in the international military operation in Libya.

On 27 January 2015, the RAF deployed an E-3D Sentry to Cyprus in support of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. The Sentry joins RAF Panavia Tornado, MQ-9 Reaper, and AirTanker Voyager aircraft performing or supporting almost daily strikes against militants.

On 23 June 2015, the first of the original 18 NATO E-3A AWACS aircraft to retire arrived at Davis-Monthan AFB near Tucson, AZ. The aircraft, LX-N 90449, will be placed in parts reclamation storage where critical parts will be removed by NATO technicians to support their remaining fleet of 16 Boeing E-3A aircraft. It had accumulated 22,206 flight hours between 19 August 1983 and 13 May 2015 and operated out of twenty-one different countries in support of NATO operational activities. The aircraft was due in mid-July 2015 for a six-year cycle Depot Level Maintenance (DLM) inspection which would have been very costly. Without the inspection the aircraft would no longer be allowed to fly. The so-called "449 Retirement Project" will result in reclamation of critical parts with a value of upwards of $40,000,000. Some of the parts to be removed are no longer on the market or have become very expensive.

On 18 November 2015, an E-3G was deployed to the Middle East to begin "immediately" flying combat missions in support of Operation Inherent Resolve against ISIL, marking the first combat deployment of the upgraded AWAC Block 40/45. The $2.7 billion development effort started in 2003, with the first five aircraft achieving initial operational capability (IOC) in July 2015. The Block 40/45 upgrade is the most extensive the E-3 has undergone, replacing its 1970s computer technology with an early 2000s standard and including a deployable ground system that receives, processes, and disseminates data. The Air Force plans to convert 24 AWACS to E-3G standard, while retiring seven from the fleet to avoid upgrade costs and harvest out-of-production components.

Role Airborne early warning and control (AEW&C)
Manufacturer Boeing Defense, Space & Security
Westinghouse Electric (radar)
First flight EC-137D: 9 February 1972
E-3: 25 May 1976[N 1]
Introduction March 1977
Status Operational
Primary users United States Air Force
Royal Air Force
Royal Saudi Air Force
Produced 1977–1992
Number built 68
Unit cost US$270 million (FY1998 constant dollars)[2]
Developed from Boeing 707

General characteristics

  • Crew: Flight crew: 4 Mission crew: 13-19
  • Length: 152 ft 11 in (46.61 m)
  • Wingspan: 145 ft 9 in (44.42 m)
  • Height: 41 ft 4 in (12.6 m)
  • Wing area: 3,050 ft (283.4 m)
  • Empty weight: 162,000 lb (73,480 kg)
  • Loaded weight: 325,000 lb (147,400 kg)
  • Max takeoff weight: 347,000 lb (156,000 kg)
  • Powerplant: 4 x Pratt and Whitney TF33-PW-100A turbofan, 21,000 lbf (93 kN) each


  • Maximum speed: 530 mph (855 km/h)
  • Range: 4,000 NM (7,400 km) (8 hr)
  • Service ceiling 29,000 ft (9,000 m)

End notes