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Interior of the AWACS with crew monitoring Russian air traffic over Moldova and Ukraine.The Globe and Mail

The first Russian fighter-bombers were spotted by the crew of our NATO surveillance plane within 90 minutes of takeoff, at 8:30 a.m. local time Thursday, from Geilenkirchen airbase in northwestern Germany. There were a dozen of them, all flying inside Belarusian airspace.

Would they soon enter Ukraine for urban bombing or ground-attack missions?

At that moment, Belgian Lieutenant-Colonel Denis Guillaume, the tactical director of NATO Mission A18438, did not know. “Yes, they could go into Ukraine,” he said, noting that destroying Ukrainian targets was the primary mission of Russian pilots in the war, which had entered its third week.

Sure enough, later in the day, Russian jets were spotted over Ukraine. After dusk, just before our exceedingly long flight was to head back to Germany, about half a dozen Russian planes left Belarus and appeared to be headed south, toward Kyiv.

Our plane’s surveillance systems determined that they were travelling at low altitude, perhaps getting in position for a bombing run.

Russian bombing missions have been fairly steady recently but suddenly intensified Friday, when three Ukrainian cities were hit. Before Friday’s raids, there was speculation that Russian pilots had run short of smart (that is, guided) bombs. Or perhaps they were afraid of Ukraine’s ground-to-air Stinger missiles, which reportedly have taken down more than a few Russian fighter-bombers and helicopters – significantly more if Ukrainian claims are accurate.

While Lt.-Col. Guillaume did not know the ultimate destination of the Russian jets, he knew the make – Sukhoi – and their direction, altitude and speed. The incredibly detailed information came from our plane’s two main surveillance sources.

Canadian flight engineer Peter Miller inside the AWACS.Eric Reguly/The Globe and Mail

The first was the enormous radar dome, nine metres in diameter and 1.8 metres thick, which rotates six times a minute; it is mounted on two stalks atop the fuselage of NATO’s highly specialized E-3A AWACS jet. The acronym stands for Airborne Warning and Control System.

The second was a series of “listening ears” that protrude slightly along each side of the E-3A, near the front of the fuselage, and pick up electromagnetic “emissions” from aircraft. The two systems also allow the AWACS to determine the type of aircraft in an area. Besides the Sukhois, Lt.-Col. Guillaume spotted a Russian Beriev A-50 AWACS plane that was evidently providing surveillance for, or mission-control instructions to, the Russian fighter-bombers.

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All that information and more was displayed on his computer screen. Aircraft considered “friendly” – NATO planes flying in NATO airspace – came up as blue dots; orange denoted probable Russian planes. “All this gives us what we call a ‘recognized air picture,’” he said.

One problem for the AWACS is that the Russian and Ukrainian air forces both use Russian-built MiG-29 jets. Since all pilots in combat situations turn off their planes’ transponders – the electronic devices that send out aircraft identification signals – the AWACS cannot tell if a MiG-29 over Ukraine is Russian or Ukrainian. But the math says they are more likely to be Russian – Ukraine’s air force is tiny in comparison to Russia’s.

NATO’s big eye in the sky

NATO maintains watch over European skies with its

component of Airborne Warning and Control System

aircraft (AWACs) based in Geilenkirchen, Germany.

Flying 14 E-3A Sentry aircraft – modified Boeing 707s –

the multinational unit was activated in 1982 and became

fully operational in 1988. The planes fly for 10 hours or

more at an altitude of 10,000 metres, scanning European

airspace for threats with their powerful surveillance

systems.

Boeing E-3A Sentry

0

250

KM

Engines: Four TF-33

Pratt & Whitney

100A turbofan

Moscow

Radar dome

BEL.

RUS.

12-hour

mission route

Surveillance: A crew of 21,

made up of pilots, a flight

engineer, technicians and

controllers, monitor

screens for information

from the large radar and

sensors, which can scan

an area of more than

312,000 sq. km.

POLAND

GERMANY

UKR.

E-3A SENTRY FACTS

Wingspan: 44.5m

Endurance: 10 hr.+

Length: 46.7m

Altitude: 9,150m+

Speed: 800km/h+

Crew: 15-33 (max.)

JOHN SOPINSKI/the globe and mail, Source: AWACS.NATO.INT;

OPENSTREETMAP; flightaware.com; photo: nato

NATO’s big eye in the sky

NATO maintains watch over European skies with its component of

Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft (AWACs) based in

Geilenkirchen, Germany. Flying 14 E-3A Sentry aircraft – modified

Boeing 707s – the multinational unit was activated in 1982 and

became fully operational in 1988. The planes fly for 10 hours or

more at an altitude of 10,000 metres, scanning European airspace

for threats with their powerful surveillance systems.

Boeing E-3A Sentry

0

250

KM

Engines: Four TF-33

Pratt & Whitney

100A turbofan

Moscow

Radar dome

BEL.

RUS.

12-hour

mission route

Surveillance: A crew of 21,

made up of pilots, a flight

engineer, technicians and

controllers, monitor

screens for information

from the large radar and

sensors, which can scan

an area of more than

312,000 sq. km.

POLAND

GERMANY

UKR.

E-3A SENTRY FACTS

Wingspan: 44.5m

Endurance: 10 hr.+

Length: 46.7m

Altitude: 9,150m+

Speed: 800km/h+

Crew: 15-33 (max.)

JOHN SOPINSKI/the globe and mail, Source: AWACS.NATO.INT;

OPENSTREETMAP; flightaware.com; photo: nato

NATO’s big eye in the sky

NATO maintains watch over European skies with its component

of Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft (AWACs)

based in Geilenkirchen, Germany. Flying 14 E-3A Sentry aircraft

– modified Boeing 707s – the multinational unit was activated

in 1982 and became fully operational in 1988. The planes fly

for 10 hours or more at an altitude of 10,000 metres, scanning

European airspace for threats with their powerful surveillance

systems.

Boeing E-3A Sentry

Engines: Four TF-33

Pratt & Whitney

100A turbofan

Moscow

Radar dome: Rotates

once every 10 seconds

RUSSIA

BELARUS

NATO Air Base

Geilenkirchen

Surveillance: A crew of 21, made up of

pilots, a flight engineer, technicians and

controllers, monitor screens for inform-

ation from the large radar and sensors,

which can scan an area of more than

312,000 square kilometres.

12-hour

mission route

BELG.

POLAND

GERMANY

CZECH. REP.

SLOVAKIA

UKRAINE

E-3A SENTRY FACTS

HUNGARY

MOL.

Wingspan: 44.5m

Endurance: 10 hr.+

0

250

ROMANIA

Length: 46.7m

Altitude: 9,150m+

KM

Speed: 800km/h+

Crew: 15-33 (max.)

Black Sea

JOHN SOPINSKI/the globe and mail, Source: AWACS.NATO.INT; OPENSTREETMAP; flightaware.com; photo: nato

Our flight began from Geilenkirchen, the NATO base that is home to 12 of the 14 AWACS still in service – the other two are now flying from Turkey – and about 1,500 military personnel devoted to keeping them in the air.

There were 18 of these old beasts at one point, but one crashed many years ago upon takeoff in Greece and three clapped-out ones are being used for parts. The survivors are being modernized and should remain in service until 2035 – more than half a century after they first took to the air. Already, many of the planes’ aircrew are far younger than the planes themselves.

Remove the radar dome and an E-3A would not look like a military jet. That’s because it is based on the Boeing 707, a once-popular four-engine passenger plane, minus its side windows. The AWACS versions came into service in the early 1980s, and their smoke-belching Pratt & Whitney turbofan engines are uncomfortably noisy.

Inside, the plane looks like a long, skinny stock traders’ floor, with row upon row of computer screens connected to the surveillance systems, generators powered by the aircraft engines and a variety of electronics, modern and dated, stuffed onto racks. As I looked curiously at an apparently ancient, floor-mounted contraption with tubes dangling out of it, one of the flight technicians told me: “Hey, it works, and if it works we don’t fix it.”

Aboard were 21 crew members from the United States, Canada, Germany, Belgium and other NATO countries. Stuffed into the cockpit was the pilot – an American woman – two co-pilots and the flight engineer. A fifth occupant, a stuffed toy lion, was stashed in the left rear of the cockpit. It’s the mascot of AWACS Squadron 2; Squadron 1′s is a tiger.

The rest of the plane was filled with a variety of technicians, surveillance operators, aircraft controllers and fighter allocators. All of them wore green military overalls. (I was among five journalists on the flight.)

Our mission was to fly in a continuous loop at an altitude of slightly more than 9,000 metres inside what the crew called the “triangle,” where Poland meets Belarus and Ukraine. The loop was about 30 kilometres from one end to the other, and we flew counterclockwise.

The plane was designed for flights of 10 hours or more – ours was 12. In the rear were six collapsible bunks for crew members needing a horizontal break, a rudimentary kitchen to warm premade meals, a toilet you would see on any passenger jet and eight rear-facing seats for non-military crew and guests.

Long flights require mid-air refuelling, even though the plane has enormous fuel tanks that can hold almost 90,000 litres of kerosene. Our plane was topped up by a Boeing KC-135 tanker about four hours into the flight. The tanker flew above and slightly ahead of us, filling our plane via a boom that connected to a nozzle on the front top of the plane. The process took about 45 minutes as the AWACS lurched up and down in the turbulence.

The mission of the AWACS planes in this war is twofold. The first is to monitor warplane traffic within Ukraine and determine where those aircraft took off from – Russia or Belarus. The second is to secure NATO’s airspace, specifically that of NATO’s Eastern European members such as Poland and Romania. Their borders are close to, or on, the borders of Ukraine, Russia and Belarus, the Russian client state from which many Russian planes fly to attack Ukraine.

If a non-NATO plane enters NATO airspace by accident or on purpose, the AWACS would know immediately and alert NATO’s command centre. So far, that has yet to happen.

The first role is where it gets interesting. The data and intelligence collected by the AWACS is sent to NATO, which in turn sends it to individual NATO member countries, including Canada. What those countries do with the information is not officially known. But is almost certainly delivered in real time, or near real time, to the Ukrainian military.

A NATO official, who is not being identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media, told The Globe and Mail that “NATO has a long-established co-operation [agreement] with a number of partners, including Ukraine, regarding exchanges of air-situation data. This agreement was in place before the conflict and remains in operation.”

The AWACS planes do not risk flying on the very edge of Ukrainian airspace, in good part because they don’t need to. The main radar can peer several hundred kilometres into Ukraine. When the planes are at peak cruising altitude, they can monitor an area of 312,000 square kilometres, equivalent to the size of Vietnam. “We can see right into Kyiv from Poland,” said Warrant Officer Peter Miller, the mission’s Newfoundland-born flight engineer.

The other reason, of course, is that straying into Ukrainian airspace would almost certainly be condemned as an act of war by Russia, meaning the AWACS would risk being shot down – all the more so since the Russians no doubt know the NATO planes are almost certainly delivering data on Russian air traffic to the Ukrainians. The AWACS carry no defensive weapons, not even flares to confuse heat-seeking missiles, though they occasionally receive fighter escort.

Still, all wars are unpredictable, and while most AWACS flights are utterly safe – except when they are flying over war zones, as they did in Afghanistan – there can be tense moments.

One of those moments came on a night mission last Sunday. WO Miller said his AWACS was monitoring the flights of fighter-bombers that had taken off from Russia and Belarus. A couple of them got within 130 kilometres or so of the AWACS; the high closing speeds of the NATO and Russian aircraft meant that, if each held its course, they would meet one another within a few minutes.

The AWACS crew didn’t take any chances. “Once they got close enough, we ran away, bravely,” he said, noting the Russian planes ultimately did the same.

WO Miller said that, as a Canadian accustomed to peacetime, the AWACS missions on the edge of the Ukrainian frontier can be disturbing. Most Canadians haven’t known war, yet here he was, flying close to Europe’s biggest conflict since the Second World War. “My main concern is that this war will spread,” he said. “When was the last time you lived through a pandemic and a war. In Europe, we are.”


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