In the 1970s the NATO military alliance directed studies that looked at ways to improve the air defenses of the member nations. With the Boeing E-3 Sentry AWACS aircraft entering service with the USAF in 1977 with the 552d Airborne Early Warning and Control Wing at Tinker AFB, the E-3 and its capabilities became the default candidate to meet the air defense needs of NATO. The NATO Airborne Early Warning and Control Force (NAEW&CF) was created in January 1980 and granted full command status in October of that year by the alliance headquarters. The NATO E-3 force would be based at the former RAF airbase at Geilenkirchen just 50 miles from Cologne. The base had once been home to fighter squadrons assigned to RAF Germany from the end of the Second World War to 1968, at which time the base was handed back to the Germans to house a Pershing IRBM wing. With the arrival of the first NATO E-3 Sentry aircraft in 1982, flying operations started in earnest in February 1982 with then-West Germany handing over Geilenkirchen to NATO the following month. Full operational capability of the E-3 Component came in 1988.
The NATO E-3 Component of the NATO Airborne Early Warning and Control Force (NAEW&CF) is the first postwar military unit manned by a multinational force from what started out as 11 nations. Today, 18 nations participate- Belgium, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Romania, Turkey, United Kingdom, and the United States. Crews and personnel from the contributing nations not only fly and man the 18 E-3 Sentry aircraft based at Geilenkirchen, but also the support personnel of the base as well. The component commander is usually a brigadier general and the five wings of the force (Operations, Logistics, Base Support, Training, and Information Technology) are each led by a colonel from one of the contributing member nations. Only Luxembourg and the UK do not provide any personnel to the E-3 Component. Luxembourg's main contribution is the registration of the aircraft as belonging to Luxembourg and the UK has its own Sentry AWACS force based at RAF Waddington which operates under the command of the NAEW&CF.
In addition to the 18 Boeing E-3A Sentry AWACS aircraft, three ex-airline Boeing 707-320Cs were purchased as 707 Trainer Cargo Aircraft (TCA) in the late 1980s to support NAEW&CF operations. One E-3A was lost in a crash in 1996 at Aktion, Greece, due to a bird strike. There are dedicated forward operating bases (FOB) at Trapani, Italy, Aktion, Greece, and Konya, Turkey. In addition, there is a forward operating location (FOL) at Orland, Norway, and is designated differently as a formality as Norway does not allow foreign bases on its territory.
At first the E-3As were procured to fill radar gaps in the NATO alliance's radar coverage but have also served as an air battle management station (such as during the Balkan conflicts) and as a flying command post (such as in covering a major diplomatic event). The E-3 force regularly conducts counter-terrorism patrols in the Mediterranean and provides a complete maritime surveillance picture for the NATO command. During high visibility events such as summits or major sporting events like the World Cup, the E-3As act as an airborne adjunct to existing local radar networks. The powerful radar of the Sentry can detect low-flying aircraft and any unidentified aircraft not transmitting transponder squawk codes.
In the near future, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan has requested the presence of the NATO E-3s there, but the diplomatic details of a basing location nearby are still being worked out.
Source: Combat Aircraft, August 2010, Vol 11, No 8. "NATO's Flying Saucers" by Frank Crebas, p56-61.