The AWACS play a unique and valuable role for the Alliance by conducting a broad range of missions, ranging from air surveillance to air support and reconnaissance. In recent years, they increasingly have been deployed on complex and tactical missions, including air-to-air and air-to-ground control, airspace management, air policing, combat search and rescue, force marshalling and threat warning. The fleet, formally called the NATO Airborne Early Warning and Control Force (NAEWF), is one of the few military assets that are actually owned and operated by NATO. It is the Alliance's largest common-funded project and an example of what NATO member countries can achieve by pooling resources.
At present, the fleet numbers 17 Boeing AWACS E-3A radar aircraft and two trainer/cargo planes. To operate one E-3A and all of its on-board systems, there is a crew of 17 highly trained men and women from all areas of expertise. This aircraft can fly over 10 hours (and longer with air-to-air refueling) at 30 000 feet (9 150 metres) and can detect low-flying aircraft within 400 kilometres and aircraft flying at a medium altitude within 520 kilometres. The antennas for the radar systems are found in the rotodome that is carried atop the AWACS. This structure rotates every ten seconds, providing 360-degree surveillance coverage.
One aircraft flying at 9 150 meters (30 000 feet) has a radar coverage of 312 000 square kilometers. Three aircraft in overlapping orbits can provide complete radar coverage of all of Central Europe. Operators are able to identify and track enemy aircraft operating at low altitudes over all different types of terrain and give directions to friendly aircraft operating in the same area. Because the onboard radars are able to look down at the ground below, targets that would normally be obscured by stationary ground clutter can be picked up and tracked. The radar systems are able to detect not only airborne targets but also maritime vessels.
In addition to the surveillance systems, the AWACS fleet also carries extensive avionics equipment for navigation, communications and data processing. One such system is the Joint Tactical Information Distribution System (JTIDS), which instantly transmits a large amount of valuable and strategically important information to Allies.