features Welcome back, Canada: flying the NATO E-3A AWACS aircraft

After a five-year absence, a growing RCAF team is once again flying the NATO E-3A Airborne Warning & Control System (AWACS) aircraft.
Avatar for Chris Thatcher By Chris Thatcher | March 4, 2022

Estimated reading time 15 minutes, 33 seconds.

At first glance, the NATO Airborne Early Warning and Control Force (NAEW&CF) is an improbable concept. The E-3A Airborne Warning & Control System (AWACS) aircraft is a highly capable surveillance platform equipped with advanced long-range sensors to detect and track air and surface contacts over large distances for long periods of time. Yet its aircrew of 15 or more is drawn from a multitude of nationalities, with different command structures and training systems.

How could it possibly get off the ground?

“You are talking about 17 different nations putting people on the same jet and they all have to work together,” acknowledged LCol James McKillop, Commanding Officer of the Canadian contingent in the NAEW&CF. “But that spirit of cooperation is probably one of the best parts of being involved in NATO AWACS. Just seeing that level of multiculturalism and that ability to work together is kind of awesome.”

The E-3A AWACS positions to begin air-to-air refueling from a U.S. Air Force KC-135 tanker. The aircraft supports NATO operations as well as NATO summits, member exercises and major sporting events. MSgt Chris Braun Photo

Aircrews can comprise aviators from Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Turkey, and the United States. (Lithuania and Canada both contribute personnel under the Operations and Support mandate, rather than as full partners. The United Kingdom and Luxembourg participate in the AWACS program, but the Royal Air Force flies its own fleet of E-3D aircraft while Luxembourg does not provide military personnel. France operates its own E-3F airborne early warning aircraft, but also contributes an exchange officer to the NATO E-3A component.)

For many, English is a second or third language, “yet they are able to perform professionally and competently all the time,” said McKillop. “When you accept that and are willing to be patient, it makes for a fantastic work environment. I love working in this multinational setting.”

Since the NAEW&CF was stood up in 1980, the E-3A AWACS has supported NATO operations in the Gulf War, the Balkans, Afghanistan, Libya, NATO summit meetings, and even major sporting events. The Boeing 707-based platform is also a regular sight at exercises, from Red Flag events in the U.S., to Arctic exercises across Scandinavia, and air policing training in the Baltics.

Today, its three primary missions include air policing in Eastern Europe, assurance and deterrence operations over Central, Eastern and Southern Europe near Turkey, as well as over the eastern Mediterranean, and counter-terrorism operations against the remnants of ISIS.

The distinctive E-3 with its rotating radar dome is typically crewed by an aircraft commander, first pilot and flight engineer in the cockpit, and by a mission crew that includes a tactical director responsible for the overall conduct of the mission, a fighter allocator overseeing the weapons team, two to four weapons controllers to direct and employ fighters, bombers, tankers or other ISR assets, a surveillance controller responsible for all airborne sensors, three surveillance operators, and a passive controller to operate the electronic support measures (ESM) system to detect and identify all electronic emitters and potential threats in an area of operations.

Three technicians responsible for the surveillance radar, mission system, and communications such as radios, tactical datalink connectivity, and secure communication are also part of the regular crew.

The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) was an original partner in this fusion of national talent and at one point the third largest contributor of personnel (130 posts) and funding. In 2011, however, the federal government opted to withdraw from the program following a National Defence Strategic Review, ostensibly as a cost saving measure to help balance the budget. (The decision did not completely remove the RCAF from AWACS training opportunities – Canada also sends crew members to fly the E-3 Sentry at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma and with the 962nd Airborne Air Control Squadron in Alaska.) Over the next three years, RCAF participation was phased out, with the last members leaving in late 2014.

The election of a new government in 2015 led to the inclusion of a commitment in the 2017 defence policy to lead and/or contribute to NATO stability efforts worldwide, and to discussions of a return to the NAEW&CF AWACS program. In February 2018, Canada made that official, albeit not as a full member of the Program Management Organization.

If one of the objectives of a return to NATO AWACS was a degree of continuity between 2014 and 2018, there are likely few better candidates than McKillop to lead it. An aerospace controller by trade specializing in air defence, he served in the program from 2006 to 2010. When he departed as a captain, he was the component’s chief of short-range scheduling, intimately familiar with all aspects of operations.

The job has come with plenty of challenges, he reflected, but when the call came to his previous posting at NORAD headquarters in Colorado Springs, “I was certainly honoured to get the opportunity to come back.”

Over five years, the Canadian contingent intends to build to 25 personnel. The first five – McKillop, an E-3 pilot, an aerospace control (AEC) officer, an aerospace engineering officer, and an aircraft maintenance superintendent – arrived in 2019, followed by five more in 2020, including an AEC, a flight engineer, an aerospace telecommunications and information systems technician, an aviation systems (AVN) tech, and an aircraft structures (ACS) tech.

Though COVID has disrupted the pace of some postings in 2021, the contingent will grow by seven – another AEC, a communication electronics engineering officer, two aerospace control operators, an AVN tech, an avionics systems (AVS) tech, and ACS. The remaining eight members will arrive in 2022 and 2023.

“We have tried to roughly mirror the distribution we had when Canada left NATO AWACS in 2014,” said McKillop. “It was about 65 percent in the Operation Wing, 30 percent in the Logistics Wing, what NATO refers to as the aircraft maintenance squadron, and five percent in the Base Support Wing. That is what we are on track to achieve – 15 OW, 7 LW and 3 BSW.”

There is no shortage of interest in a posting to NATO Air Base Geilenkirchen in Germany, but finding the people to fill positions is not necessarily straightforward, McKillop noted. NATO-specific training is required for most jobs, so the postings are typically a four-year commitment. Promotions and career progression must be factored into personnel selection. As much as he may want the expertise of someone, if they are on the cusp of promotion “I have to say no because I can’t have him or her arrive here, get promoted, and be sent home early.”

Pilots are often drawn from the CC-130 Hercules community or other transport aircraft, and most of the mission systems crew are aerospace controllers and aerospace control operators. For now, Canada is not providing any systems technicians. Though widebody aircraft experience is preferred, maintenance technicians have come from a variety of platforms. NATO training presumes a degree of experience on a similar platform, so the learning curve can be steep without that widebody experience.

LCol McKillop and Maj Stournaras discuss mission details prior to a September sortie. SSgt Samantha Krolikowski Photo

“I’m from a search and rescue background,” said MCpl Karyn Niebergall, an aviation technician with 417 Combat Support Squadron in Cold Lake, Alta., who was surprised, but excited, when she learned she had been chosen for the first rotation. Transitioning from a CH-146 Griffon helicopter to a large jet “has definitely not been without its challenges. … I’m still trying to find the main rotor blades on this thing! The training is very intense, there is a lot to learn, and the pace can be quite fast and furious. But being a Canadian technician, we are used to, and thrive on, such challenges.”

Capt Colin Wiley, an aerospace controller, admitted he was hesitant at first when his career manager flagged his experience managing expeditionary datalink capability for RCAF aircraft at 8 Air Communications and Control Squadron (8 ACCS) in Trenton, Ont., as a potential fit for the posting. But advice from more experienced mentors within the trade convinced him to apply.

“I felt as though the pandemic had prevented me from getting the full experience from my position within 8 ACCS and that perhaps it was not the time to accept another quick posting, which would lead to having to establish myself in a new environment again,” he conceded.

He had to complete basic land and sea survival courses and aeromedical training, which are not standard for AECs, but found them “excellent preparation for flight and for the emergency situations that could take place.”


The frequency of E-3A flights is classified, but the fleet of 14 modified 1980s-era Boeing 707-320 commercial airframes accumulates flight hours at a steady clip. “It is a reliable workhorse,” said McKillop. “Like any airframe, it shows its age and has its maintenance issues, but it has been a very reliable aircraft.”

Crews are divided among two operational flying squadrons and may fly as often as three times a week or as little as every two weeks, depending on the mission. The counter ISIL rotation, for example, will deploy crews and aircraft to Turkey for a month.

Every time an E-3 goes airborne, it is under the control of one of two Combined Air Operations Centres in Spain or Germany. MSgt Chris Braun Photo

“That mission is always being shaped and reshaped,” McKillop noted, “but I was on a roto in April where we spent a month in Turkey and we flew almost every second day, sometimes back-to-back. We are up there maintaining surveillance over what is going on and supporting mission partners, helping them build an accurate air picture. We also have a maritime capability on our radar to detect and track ships, so part of our assurance measures involve us looking for surface vessel movements that may not be in compliance with international law.”

Every time an E-3 goes airborne, it is under the control of one of two Combined Air Operations Centres (CAOC) in Europe, CAOC Torrejón in Spain or CAOC Uedem in Germany. Mission planning is led by the tactical director and typically conducted the day before a sortie to go over every element of the mission and ensure each section fully understands the tasking and whether “the mission profile makes sense,” he said. “Sometimes the schedulers may task us to do things that don’t quite fit if we don’t have enough gas or when the weather gets a vote.”

The unarmed E-3A can operate for almost 10 hours without refuelling and, at 30,000 feet, cover a surveillance area of more than 120,000 square miles with its radar. And every mission is a training opportunity. “We may go airborne for what is classified as an assurance measure sortie, but if there are fighters launched out of an air base in our airspace, we will work with them. When we are airborne, even when it is operational, there is always training.”

Yet many don’t realize how widespread AWACS support is, observed Wiley, a surveillance controller completing training with the Aircrew Training Squadron. Following support to Baltic Operations (BALTOPS) 50, a naval exercise in June, he learned from a friend on one of the participating Royal Canadian Navy ships that his role was only understood after the exercise.

Though modest, Canada’s contribution is recognized, he noted. RCAF AECs, like with much of the Canadian Armed Forces, “have exposure to a very large umbrella of experience that isn’t typical of larger militaries. While our AWACS-specific training within the AEC community is quite niche relative to our ground-based positions, I firmly believe that we bring a lot of value to the mission crew from this large background of experience.”

A NATO E-3A aircraft prepares to receive fuel from a KC-135 aircraft from the Pennsylvania Air National Guard’s 171st Air Refueling Wing over Central Europe in 2018. SMSgt Shawn Monk Photo

“Working alongside so many other nations, cultures and perspectives has been, and will continue to be, invaluable to anyone who gets the chance to be posted here,” said Niebergall. “We are exposed to so many different opportunities to learn.”

The notion that the world needs more Canada is often treated as a banal cliché, but it rings true in the NAEW&CF, McKillop emphasized. “If I had a nickel for every European who has embraced me since we got back here, I’d probably be retired. Our presence is welcomed. Our absence was felt deeply. And my message to my team is, we can’t afford to rest on our laurels, we need to live up to that reputation every day.”

The process of returning an RCAF team to the NATO AWACS program has been long and slow, and the pandemic hasn’t helped, he said. “But I have had nothing but cooperation and an outstanding welcome from the NATO community. It has been quite overwhelming and even emotional at times, how much we were apparently missed in the few years we were gone.”

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1 Comment

  1. It’s excellent to see that Canadians are back in Geilenkirchen. I served as a pilot with the Component from 2001-06 and know the depth of talent that the RCAF brings to a multinational unit like the NAEWF. I can also attest to the quality of the platform. It’s old, but it has been periodically brought up to date over the years. And air refueling gives it an endurance edge that is hard to beat. My record mission on any platform was after 9-11. 18.6 hours in the air in an E-3 – three KC-135 plugs, two at night.

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