NATO is sending its most sophisticated radar aircraft to help coordinate the campaign of airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, the alliance decided at its summit meeting in Warsaw, Poland.
Sending the E-3 airborne radars, commonly known as AWACS — an acronym for "Airborne Warning and Control System" — to Turkey has also an added benefit, one that the alliance hasn't talked about but will be easily feasible for the aircraft's powerful radar: Keeping an eye on the Russian warplanes operating inside Syria.
Some of the 16 Boeing E-3s which NATO usually operates from Geilenkirchen, in Germany, will be flying in Turkish and international airspace, NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg said at a press conference at the end of the summit. It isn't clear yet whether the planes will be deployed to a Turkish base or will fly from Germany.
"We will provide AWACS support and the plan is to have them to flying over international airspace and Turkey and that will allow us to look into airspace in Iraq and Syria," Stoltenberg said, as reported by the AFP news agency.
The radar mounted on the back of the airplanes, housed inside a giant rotating disc, has the ability to see and follow other aircraft at a distance of up to 400 km or 250 miles, according to its maker Northrop Grumman. That gives NATO the ability to see air traffic over all of Syria.
An E-3 flying in Turkey just north of the Syrian border can see planes clear to the Iraqi border, including the entire area of the Islamic State's so-called caliphate. Another one over international waters off Lebanon can cover the rest of the country, including Damascus and the southern border with Jordan.
The official statement published at the end of the summit says that "we have agreed in principle to enhance the Alliance's contribution to the efforts of the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL by providing direct NATO AWACS support to increase the coalition's situational awareness."
In practical terms, this means that the alliance's radar aircraft will act as flying controllers, telling coalition pilots what's going on in the sky around them and helping coordinate and execute their misisons. They will also be able to tell them if Russian or Syrian warplanes are in the vicinity, helping avoid incidents like last November's, when a Turkish fighter jet shot down a Russian bomber that had, Turkey says, strayed into Turkish airspace. That was the first time since the 1950s that NATO downed a Russian, or Soviet, airplane, and helped sour relations between the alliance and Russia, currently at their lowest point since the Cold War.
"This support is planned to start in the autumn, pending national approval procedures, and the NATO Military Authorities are now developing the details," the statement says, adding one important caveat: "This contribution to the Global Coalition does not make NATO a member of this coalition."
A NATO E-3A waiting for its turn to take off (Photo by NATO)
Some members of the 28-nation alliance — notably the US, UK and France — are conducting airstrikes against Islamic State ground targets in Syria and Iraq, and others are providing logistics or other support. But NATO itself is not formally engaged in the conflict, nor does it plan to be.
The E-3 jets that will conduct the missions are the only aircraft that the alliance owns under its own name, in fact. The Boeing planes, derived from the 707 passenger jet, are a modernized version of the E-3A model that entered service in the 1970s. They are flown by multinational crews provided by all member states.
The NATO E-3s have been to war before, for example helping coordinate coalition flights during the 1990s air campaigns over the former Yugoslavia. So have their counterparts in the US Air Force and with France, the UK and Saudi Arabia, the only other nations that operate the highly sophisticated aircraft.
NATO also announced at the Warsaw summit that it's looking for a replacement for its AWACS, which are "a critical part of NATO's command and control capabilities," the summit statement said, adding that the 16 planes "will continue to be modernised and extended in service until 2035." By then, the alliance's E-3s will have had 50 years in service. NATO hasn't decided yet on a replacement.