EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska -- The air war is underway at RED FLAG-Alaska 18-1. But fifty miles southwest and ten thousand feet above the dog fighting, a NATO E-3A Component jet circles in its flight pattern, soaking up signals and squawks about the fluid battle space below and providing friendly forces a watchful "eye in the sky" that extends in every direction for hundreds of miles.
As a NATO unit, Airmen from around the world work the rows of screens and scopes in the middle of the aircraft, their country's respective flag adorning their shoulders. Everyone stares intently at their screen, all of them sharing the common goal of identifying and calling out new targets as they appear on the scope. The mission crew is comprised of a surveillance team, a weapons team, and airborne technicians; they are responsible to the tactical director, who is the senior member of the mission crew.
A bearded German crew member from the weapons team keys the microphone with his foot and relays the details of a nascent threat to a friendly fighter, like an offensive coordinator spotting a hole in the defense. Minutes pass and the radio chatter continues. New targets are being spotted with greater frequency now, the scopes overflowing with enemy aircraft. And then the call happens; the first bogey is down. But this is no time to rejoice, as the air war rages on with increasing ferocity.
What makes the E-3A such a valuable component in the fight? The answer is that it’s able to identify and track aircraft from a long range with the massive radome mounted atop the jet.
Capt. Noel Conrard, an air battle manager, makes this comparison: ”Fighter jets are like looking through a straw, whereas the E-3A is able to gather information like water running through a firehouse.”
The raw signals from the radome get piped into a useable computer interface on the scopes and screens that comprise the mission crew section. With this real time knowledge in hand, the weapons crew is then able to funnel this information down to the fighter jets, providing them enhanced situational awareness of both air and ground threats.
The NATO E-3A mission at RED FLAG-Alaska might sound simple: mitigate the losses of fighter jets from unreported ground and air threats. But the execution of this goal is anything but easy, as it requires the coordinated efforts of a multinational team—15 of the 28 NATO member nations are represented—working in near harmony between the flight deck and mission crew.
The most senior members of the mission crew have been working on the NATO E-3A for 30 years, while the most junior members have been assigned for a year or less. Yet all of these nationalities, backgrounds and experience levels are able to meld their skillsets and cultural idiosyncrasies into a cohesive team, a team that delivers responsive airborne early warning, battle management and command and control to its operational commanders.
"It starts with good training and having everyone working toward a common goal," said Staff Sgt. Ryan Goll, a radar technician. "Once you're qualified on that position you know 'this is my role.' So it's a combination of the training and doing we what we do everyday that makes it work seamlessly.”
Maj. Gary Axley, the Deployment Commander for NATO AWACS at RED FLAG-Alaska, attributed the successful multinational environment to old fashioned mission preparation. "We spend a lot of time together in the simulator and training in the air. But exercises like Red Flag really push our situational awareness and ability to react in a high ops tempo.”
Another reason the E-3A is able to provide effective command and control is through their use of "contracts" amongst the aircrew. With such a wide-ranging team at the tactical director's disposal, "contracts" is how they ensure everyone knows what they're responsible for in the heat of battle. "These contracts are so we know how to react in certain situations," said Axley. "Everyone knows what we are doing and when it gets really busy we just know what needs to be done.”
The crew of the E-3A Component flew more than 4,000 miles from their home station in Geilenkirchen, Germany to attend Eielson's first Red Flag of 2018 and they were pleased with the training scenarios that awaited them.
“We want this integration piece and combined command and control with different assets,” said 1st Lt. Bodo Walle, FA Fighter Allocator. “With our standing tasking in Europe, it’s mainly small aircraft control without having all these assets being integrated. That was our training focus here and our main benefit for participating in Red Flag-Alaska.”
A large part of the NATO E-3A mission is to provide surveillance in eastern Europe, but at RED FLAG-Alaska they are able to fully employ the aircraft's unique mission sets.
"When we are at home station [training] it's like a backyard football scrimmage; we just don't have as many players," said Conrard. "But at a large force exercise like RED FLAG-Alaska, it’s like playing on a regular sized football field. We execute different tactics and integrate with more assets. It allows the E-3 to be used to the fullest extent of its capabilities.”
RED FLAG-Alaska provides the type of training that is only replicable in real-life combat situations. "It's a really good example of the air-to-air component," said Goll. "Tracking enemy fighters and actually getting our communications gear jammed. This is more than your typical sortie or exercise; Red-Flag is the most realistic training you're going to get.”
When all of these factors are combined with the sheer square mileage of the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex—which is about the size of Florida—NATO's E-3A is afforded the opportunity to "train the way you fight" in case they are ever called upon to engage in a real world contingency or operation.
The final piece that allows the aircrew to perform their mission is the high level of camaraderie amongst all of its personnel. "The opportunity to work with our NATO military partners from so many backgrounds is fantastic," said Capt. Joe Dougherty, an E-3A Pilot. "The thing that makes an assignment is the people and having the chance to work with all the NATO partners is a once in a lifetime experience.”
And after the air boss comes over the radio to conclude the fictitious battle for the morning, the tactical director begins to clear off and dismiss the assigned scopes and sections, powering down the computers as the E-3A makes its way back toward Eielson. A Belgium crew member walks past a U.S. service member, fist bumping him on the way by. “Nice job out there today,” he says, “You did really well.” They exchange a courteous nod and smile.