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In the early 1970s, various NATO studies indicated that an airborne early warning (AEW) system would greatly enhance the Alliance’s existing airspace defence system. In December 1978 the members of NATO’s Defence Planning Committee (DPC) signed a Memorandum of Understanding for the procurement and operational use of an AEW system. This decision by the member nations launched NATO’s largest procurement programme at of that time. The NATO Airborne Early Warning & Control Force (NAEW&CF) was established in January 1980. At the end of 1988 the E-3A Component was declared fully operational. The E-3D Component achieved fully operational status on 1 July 1992.

e-3a component

The build-up of the E-3A Component began in January 1980. In October 1980 the Component was granted the status of an international military headquarters by decision of the NATO Defence Planning Committee (DPC). Flying operations began in February 1982 after the delivery of the first E-3A aircraft. The Component was officially activated on 28 June 1982 and achieved full operational capability at the end of 1988. 

The E-3A Component has played a significant role in promoting peace, stability, and global security. In the past, AWACS aircraft played an important role in NATO operations such as in Operation Eagle Assist in the United States after 9/11, in Libya and in Afghanistan.

TCA Operations

From 1985 until 2011 the E-3A Component also operated three Trainer Cargo Aircraft (TCAs), a modified version of the Boeing 707-320C, for transporting cargo and passengers. The last TCA was taken out of service at the Component in December 2011. From the start of 2012, a commercial company took over the cargo and passenger transport tasks formerly accomplished by the TCAs. The Component also employed its Trainer Cargo Aircraft (TCAs) to provide support to humanitarian relief operations.



Originally designed as an elevated radar platform, the AWACS aircraft has constantly evolved to address the realities of geopolitical change and NATO’s new mission over the last 40 years. The AWACS aircraft has become an essential part of air battle management and has continued to remain operationally relevant through successive modernisation programmes involving state-of-the-art engineering and manufacturing developments. All E-3A aircraft have been modified to glass cockpits with large displays and were modified with GPS navigation equipment, necessary to meet current and future aviation requirements and regulations.

Final Life Time Extension Program

From 2020, NAEW&CF will implement the “Final Life Time Extension Program” (FLEP) modernisation programme. This will allow the E-3A fleet to continue to carry out the Alliance’s missions until 2035. With this investment, the remaining 14 E-3As will receive advanced communication and network resources. The 16 participating countries in the NATO Airborne Early Warning and Control Programme Management Organization (NAPMO) are funding this modernisation.

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