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  • Writer's pictureFrank Visser

2011 NATO E-3s during Operation Unified Protector

Again and even after being in service for almost thirty years the E-3A aircraft of the NATO have been of great value again as a platform. The success of Operation Unified Protector and the ousting of the Ghadaffi regime in Libya has also been partly due to the employment of E-3A aircraft. For this report Frank Visser visited Geilenkirchen air base.

Shortly after the United Nations Security Council had adopted the resolutions 1970 and 1973 against Libya and as president Ghadaffi continued his military actions against his own people relentlessly, the French, the USA and the British governments decided to intervene. Under the code name Odyssey Dawn (OD) numerous air strikes against troops loyal to Ghadaffi were carried out by these countries on 19 March 2011. The Airborne Early Warning tasks were executed by E-3 aircraft of these countries. Soon NATO was requested to take over these operations and Operation Unified Protector (OUP) was born. Thus NATO E-3A of Geilenkirchen air base in Germany were deployed quickly to the Forward Operation Base (FOB) Trapani air base at Sicily (Italy). No unknown territory for the NATO E-3A Component, as this FOB is used regularly for example during Operation Active Endeavour the operation to monitor ships and to protect them against piracy and terrorist actions.

This KC-135R of 126 ARW Illinois ANG, seen here taxiing at Geilenkirchen air base just before starting its refuelling mission.

Start OUP

To enable an operation like this the presence of an AEW platform such as the E-3A is a prerequisite. Guarding the no fly zone meant a 24-hour surveillance of a larger part of the operational area.

Since this immense task could not be carried out by NATO E-3A aircraft alone they were supported by French E-3Fs, British E-3Ds and United States of America E-3B/Cs. Additional AEW support was given by French E-2C Hawkeye aircraft, operating from the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, and a Greek Embraer R-99. In addition to this 24-hour surveillance the AEW aircraft operated as a communication platform between the Combined Air Operation Centre (CAOC) 5 at Poggio Renatico air base in Italy on the one hand and the coalition partners in the air on the other. One of the members of the E-3A Component during OUP was Lt Col

Kees Pauw of the Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF). In April and May 2011 he held three positions. As well as his regular job as tactical director, which he had carried out during five OUP missions, he became also the detachment commander (detco) of the NATO E-3A Component at Trapani. Since there were also two British E-3Ds detached at Trapani and a close cooperation was required, he was also appointed to be force element commander in charge.

The complete OUP NATO E-3 AWACS detachment from Forward Operation Base Trapani Air Base at Sicily in one picture. In front the two RAF E-3D’s from Waddington with three NATO E-3A’s in the back. Also visible in the middle is a modified Boeing 707 used as Cargo Aircraft during OUP. © NATO E-3A Component

The force element commander of a NATO E-3A Component of about 100 staff members, made up of two complete E-3A crews and a reserve crew and the British present with a staff of around 80 at Trapani. In his opinion it was, especially at the start of OUP, much better to appoint someone who is not a pilot as detco. Multiple tuning and adaptation of the procedures and the coordination and command structure with CAOC 5 for optimisation are tasks better suited to a tactical director. Certainly in the beginning there was not much of a close cooperation.

NATO E-3A are one of the most modern E-3’s in the world. Here NATO E-3A 456 can be seen during air-to-air refuelling.

During the first week of OUP the E-3 aircraft of France, Britain, the USA and NATO operated individually. This was changed soon and led to the allocation of specific time slots for each AEW unit. The American E-3B/C and the British E-3Ds would fly their missions during the day whereas NATO E-3As would mainly fly in the evening and at night.

NATO E-3A 456 seen here was one of several AWACS aircraft which actually served in Operation Unified Protector. The NATO E-3A Component also used 447, 448, 450 and 455.

Each time slot lasted eight hours, of which the take-off took place two hours before they were going on station and one hour before they entered the operations area, which was close to the Libyan coast. Next, the handover with the previous shift took place and then the on-station period started. After the following handover the one-hour flight back to Trapani began. Towards the end of OUP the flights took also place over Libya. This also applied to the French E-2 Hawkeyes, who were gap fillers for the E-3s and who flew with the Greek R-99 AEW missions over East Libya. Since the E-3s of the various countries in the AEW platform were different, the transfer of the French E-3Fs always took longer than the transfer of the British E-3Ds and the USAF E-3Cs. The French do not have certain control systems with which the NATO E-3As are equipped.

NATO E-3A 443 just before receiving the juice on a air-to-air refuelling mission.


As OUP was such a large-scale operation it also implied the necessity to communicate in a diverse way. NATO air assets took advantage of Link 16, a system with which 77,000 signs per second in coded messages can be dispatched via 51 channels. But there were also air assets which did not have this means of communication at their disposal, such as the aircraft of the United Arab Emirates. Therefore radio communications with them were carried out in the old fashioned way. The air assets a maritime fleet was present to enforce the embargo with the Libyan regime at sea The maritime forces also used Link 11 and chat, which can be described as a military form of msn. It was used to exchange data between the E-3 and CAOC 5 and vice versa. During OUP chat was used by the British forces and NATO. The French did not have this, so they communicated via satellite and radio. Should this chat system break down there would always be a back-up, namely radio and satellite communication. This chatting with CAOC 5 had the great advantage of enabling them to speed up processes and procedures.

Another Operation Unified Protector mission completed. The crew of NATO E-3A 447 on there way to the debriefing at Forward Operation Base Trapani Air Base Sicily. Photo: NATO E-3A Component

Passing on long coordinates of a ground target via radio for example needs to be checked first very careful to prevent misunderstandings. Via chat there can be no misunderstanding, for the coordinates are sent as a text message. Another advantage of chatting was that they could communicate with more people at the same time, which is very difficult via radio. Although there was no real air threat, the NATO E-3As have regularly observed hostile helicopters. Later during the conflict registered humanitarian flights were permitted and Libyan helicopters got Mode III assigned / secure codes.

The AEW platforms checked these flights and sometimes as helicopters deviated from their flight

plan it was reported to CAOC 5, who then determined what steps had to be taken. There was no real ground threat either, although several SA-6 and Scud installations were discovered and subsequently destroyed.

For these crew members another eight hour Operation Unified Protector mission comes to an end. During Operation Unified Protector mission. NATO E-3A operated from their Forward Operation Base Trapani air base Sicily. Photo: NATO E-3A Component. It thus happened frequently that the E-3s communicated with CAOC 5 about U(C)AVs in an area where actions of NATO had been planned. NATO E-3s then took care that the U(C)AVs were flying at a higher altitude so that the fighter bombers could go into action. It was essential for the E-3 crew to fill in the outline completely and tune it with CAOC5. RNLAF Lt Col Jelle, tactical director on board of a NATO E-3A said: “We were frequently so busy that the flying crew had to provide us with coffee and refreshments, because we could not find any spare time for this. Something I have never experienced before. OUP was a special experience as we provided air power support without having troops of our own forces present on the ground and therefore it became difficult to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys.” This was complemented by Capt. Sjoerd en Gerben (RNLAF), both surveillance controller on a NATO E-3A, who thought it was an utterly challenging period, in which everything came together: Fine tuning of the radar, getting the composition of the air space complete, filtering and deleting data loopings (double information), but also the cooperation with AEW units and the communication with air assets, the E-8 J-STAR and CAOC 5 up to detecting helicopters and having air assets eliminate ground targets made this a unique experience.

For refuelling NATO E-3As a temporary detachement of KC-135Rs are based at Geilenkirchen air base. This particular aircraft belongs to the 126 ARW of Illinois Air National Guard, based at Scott AFB.

OUP over in 8 months

NATO can look back on OUP as a successful operation with a unique character. An operation in the backyard of NATO territory which was settled without NATO troops on the ground in 8 months and which resulted for the NATO E-3A Component in 247 missions and 2,120 flying hours. An operation in which NATO was able to prove itself and which also has shown the value of the E-3 platform. Lt Col Kees Pauw: “OUP was the operation, for which we had been training for many years. It was a unique conflict and what has stuck most in my memory is the cooperation with so many partners, the speed of acting and the flexibility of our staff. NATO has been able to limit collateral damage to a minimum.“ He concluded: “An operation, however, not possible without the E-3. We have given a demonstration and shown our capabilities. The lessons learned will be applied to future operations. The NATO E-3As can look back with pride on their presence in OUP as the conductor of an orchestra and as the eyes in the sky.“

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