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NATO Eyes Antimissile Gains In Surveillance-Plane Upgrades

By Sebastian Sprenger

Global Security Newswire

A NATO airborne warning and control system, or "AWACS," aircraft takes off from an alliance air base at Geilenkirchen, Germany, in March 2011. Officials have begun discussions for replacing the surveillance aircraft with a more-capable fleet sometime in the 2030s. A NATO airborne warning and control system, or "AWACS," aircraft takes off from an alliance air base at Geilenkirchen, Germany, in March 2011. Officials have begun discussions for replacing the surveillance aircraft with a more-capable fleet sometime in the 2030s. (Christof Koepsel/Getty Images)

NATO has begun initial deliberations for upgrading the alliance's surveillance-aircraft fleet, with an eye toward improving its missile-defense capabilities.

At issue is the way forward in replacing the alliance-owned Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft -- Boeing E-3 Sentry planes commonly known by the acronym AWACS -- sometime in the 2030s. Given the expectation of a long acquisition process for the project, some officials believe that the time is now to begin planning.

Defense acquisition leaders from the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Germany and Italy discussed plans on April 2 at a so-called "Five Powers" meeting in Brussels, according to the gathering's written agenda prepared for participants.

The NATO Industrial Advisory Group, a panel of defense industry executives providing counsel on military hardware, has additionally begun studying what kinds of new technologies should go into the next-generation aircraft, according to the summary of a March 31 meeting obtained by Global Security Newswire.

While there is not yet a formal, alliance-approved requirements list for the new plane, supporting theater-level missile defense is among the operational scenarios envisioned for the new capability, according to the document. One NATO insider said under consideration is the fielding of missile-tracking sensors that would detect incoming projectiles and supply ground-based interceptors with targeting data.

Such a capability -- along with other planned enhancements for areas like maritime surveillance, intelligence support, or the command and control of forces -- would take the envisioned upgrades "far beyond" what the alliance's current AWACS fleet can do, the insider said. The source spoke with GSN on condition of anonymity to offer more candor on the emerging trans-Atlantic topic, which is expected to come up at the September NATO summit in Wales.

An interim report by the industry advisers is expected in August; the final version is due in April 2015.

Some AWACS planes were dispatched to conduct surveillance flights over Poland and Romania last month amid tensions with Russia over Moscow's actions in Ukraine.

"This employment increases the understanding of what is happening in the region, including in Ukraine, for NATO allies," the alliance said on its website.

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