Air Force’s aging E-3 Sentry stirs questions of airborne-battle readiness

US News

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As the recent Chinese spy balloon encounter showed, keeping the skies safe is a tough job. For decades the U.S. Air Force has relied on the E-3 Sentry, and the most recent version, the E-3G, has been upgraded with more modern electronics and software to keep up with new threats.

‘The best way to describe it is kind of like the quarterback in the sky,” said Air Force Col. Keven Coyle, commander of the 552nd Air Control Wing. “It’s the job of the E-3 to surveil, to layout the enemies arrayed, and then allow our friendly forces to be able to be set up in a way that allows them to fight with the greatest capacity.”

A E-3G passes the moon during take off from Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma
By Brad Howard, CNBC

The Air Force is hoping that the E-7 Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft built by Boeing can take over down the line if the Air Force needs to retire some of the older Sentry aircraft over the coming years. In the most recent budget, Congress appropriated an additional $200 million for the Air Force to develop a prototype to meet that need.

“Congress has approved the money for the first two prototypes, which is a very good thing for the Air Force,” said Lt. Col. Peter “Beast” Bastien, Air Combat Command directorate of plans, programs and requirements, airborne weapons systems and futures chief. “On the other hand, there’s a physical limitation on how fast you can turn a roll of aluminum into an E-7.”

A Royal Australian Air Force E-7A Wedgetail takes off during Black Flag 22-1 at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, May 10, 2022.
U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Josey Blades

The age of the E-3s has made replacement parts more difficult to procure, and the mechanical breakdowns inherent in such an old aircraft are impacting mission rates. Congress prohibited the Air Force from starting to retire the bulk of the current fleet of Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft until the Secretary of the Air Force submits an acquisition strategy to Congress for a replacement. But even then, it could be years until a replacement is operational.

A U.S. Air Force E-3G taxies on a runway at Tinker AFB
By Brad Howard, CNBC

“Having the first one out in 2027 is not bad from an acquisition point of view, ” said Daniel Goure, senior vice president with the Lexington Institute, “Even for a system that’s been in some variants in the field for a long time, that’s pretty darn quick, but if there is a way to get them quicker we really need to consider that in order to make sure that we don’t lose the capability because of a problem with the aging AWACS.”

Watch the video above to get a look inside the Air Force’s E-3G Sentry.

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