Airframe Profile: E-3 SENTRY (AWACS)

Airframe Profile: E-3 SENTRY (AWACS)

By TSgt Perry Aston, Airman Magazine

Since 1977, the E-3 Airborne Early Warning and Control System (AWACS) has provided airborne surveillance and command and control functions over battle spaces in conflicts around the globe. Operated by four countries and NATO, the E-3 allows radar to detect low-flying aircraft over land, a capability impossible for previous airborne radars due to an inability to discriminate aircraft from ground clutter. This technological advancement provides more accurate information, with which air operations commanders can gain and maintain control of the air battle. In support of air-to-ground operations, the Sentry can provide direct information needed for interdiction, reconnaissance, airlift and close-air support for friendly ground forces.


In the 1960s, The U.S. Air Force sought proposals for a jet-powered replacement for its piston-engine EC-121 Warning Stars. The new aircraft would utilize new radar technology and computer aided data analysis. The radar was developed by Westinghouse Electric, who pioneered the design of High-power Radio Frequency phase shifters. The 18-bit computer and beyond the horizon pulse mode allowed the radar to detect ships at sea when the radar beam is directed below the horizon. Boeing decided to base their design on the existing 707 commercial jet airframe modified to mount the radar in a 30-foot wide, rotating dome on top of the aircraft and allow for in-flight refueling.

Today the E-3 is undergoing modernization to keep it commanding the battlespace for years to come. A complete flight deck modernization program has been initiated to maintain compliance with worldwide airspace mandates. A Radar System Improvement Program has enhanced the radar’s electronic countermeasures and improved the system’s reliability and detection of low radar cross-section targets.



The USAF employs 31 operational E-3 Sentry aircraft. Twenty-seven fly within Air Combat Command and four in Pacific Air Forces. The E-3 has proven its worth allowing commanders a detailed real-time view of the battlespace during operations Desert Storm, Allied Force, Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom and Odyssey Dawn/Unified Protector.
The E-3 has also deployed to support humanitarian relief operations in the U.S. following Hurricanes Rita and Katrina, coordinating rescue efforts between military and civilian authorities. The E-3 can fly an eight-hour mission without refueling. Its on-station time can be increased through in-flight refueling, with only necessary limitations for crew rest.

  • ![ "E-3 Sentry (AWACS)
    Primary function: Airborne battle management, surveillance, command, control and communications. Speed: 360 mph. Dimensions: Wingspan 130 ft. 10 in.; length 145 ft. 8 in.; height 41 ft. 4 in.; rotodome, 30 ft. diameter, 6 ft. thick, mounted 11 ft. above fuselage. Range: More than eight hours unrefueled. Crew: 17-23. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Dave Ahlschwede)"](


607th , 726th, 728th and 729th Air Control Squadrons, 552nd Air Control Wing, Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma
962nd Air Control Squadron, 3rd Wing, Elmendorf AFB Alaska
961st Air Control Squadron, 18th Wing, Kadena Air Base, Japan

, uses a communication system March 28, 2017, while flying in an E-3 Sentry over the Pacific Ocean. Airborne surveillance technicians make the initial identification of friend or foe aircraft and monitor their position.PHOTO // SENIOR AIRMAN JOHN LINZMEIER


  • During Desert Storm, E-3 controllers assisted in 38 of the 41 air-to-air kills recorded by coalition aircraft during the conflict.
  • The Radome is tilted slightly down towards the front to decrease aerodynamic drag
  • The E-3 Sentry mission crew of 13 to 19 Airmen monitor 14 consoles inside the aircraft and can track aircraft 400 miles away


Primary function: airborne battle management, command and control
Contractor: Boeing Aerospace Co.
Power plant: four Pratt and Whitney TF33-PW-100A turbofan engines
Thrust: 20,500 pounds each engine at sea level
Rotodome: 30 feet in diameter (9.1 meters), 6 feet thick (1.8 meters), mounted 11 feet (3.33 meters) above fuselage
Wingspan: 145 feet, 9 inches (44.4 meters)
Length: 152 feet, 11 inches (46.6 meters)
Height: 41 feet, 9 inches (13 meters)
Weight: 205,000 pounds (zero fuel) (92,986 kilograms)
Maximum Takeoff Weight: 325,000 pounds (147,418 kilograms)
Fuel Capacity: 21,000 gallons (79,494 liters)
Speed: optimum cruise 360 mph (Mach 0.48)
Range: more than 5,000 nautical miles (9,250 kilometers)
Ceiling: Above 29,000 feet (8,788 meters)
Crew: flight crew of four plus mission crew of 13-19 specialists (mission crew size varies according to mission)
Unit Cost: $270 million (fiscal 98 constant dollars)
Initial operating capability: April 1978
Inventory: active force, 32 (one test); Reserve, 0; Guard, 0

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