The US Air Force and NATO are continuing the modernisation of their E-3 Sentry airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft, as part of the diminishing manufacturing sources replacement of avionics for global operations and navigation (DRAGON) programme.
Under the programme, the aircraft’s existing technology will be updated with commercially available, digital avionics systems, while retaining all aircraft infrastructure such as engines, airframe and mission systems.
The aircraft will be fitted with digital, satellite-based communications, modern flight management system suite architecture, and a digital cockpit comprising five glass display screens, which will provide aircrews with easy-to-use and customisable engine, navigation and situational awareness data.
Additional equipment to be installed includes weather radar that can predict wind shear, an enhanced ground proximity warning system and a fully digital flight deck audio distribution system.
DRAGON logistics manager Rob Stewart said: "This cooperative effort is important because it leverages the 95% design commonality between the US and Nato AWACS, and promotes interoperability, interchangeability, cost sharing and a common sustainment and logistics pipeline."
As part of the flight deck upgrade, the majority of E-3’s analogue indicators will be replaced with modern digital multicolour graphic displays, while updated airspace-compliant subsystems avionics will replace nearly all of the aircraft’s avionics.
The upgrade is also expected to facilitate the removal of the navigator, while adding a mode-5 identification friend or foe capability and reducing the crew size from four to three.
In addition, the flight deck modernisation will ensure that both US and Nato AWACS fleets meet the International Civil Aviation Organization’s new flight mandates and have broader access to airspace.
Despite jointly working through risk reduction, engineering, manufacturing and development phases, Nato and the USAF will award separate contracts for the production, deployment and operational stages.
Boeing currently holds the current engineering, manufacturing and development contract, and has installed one digital flight deck and avionics system onto the first Nato aircraft. The company is scheduled to install another system onto an USAF test aircraft in the coming months.
The Nato AWACS is scheduled to undergo ground testing this month, followed by a first test flight in November.
Meanwhile, the air force expects to take delivery of 24 updated E-3s by the fourth quarter of 2025.
Image: A Nato E-3 Sentry airborne warning and control system aircraft in flight. Photo: courtesy of Jwh.