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Boeing E-3 Sentry (AWACS)

Airborne Surveillance, Command, Control and Communications Aircraft


A critical player for the United States, NATO and a few Western allies, the Boeing E-3 Sentry continues service in the vital AWACs role.

Detailing the development and operational history of the Boeing E-3 Sentry (AWACS) Airborne Surveillance, Command, Control and Communications Aircraft.  Entry last updated on 8/6/2018. Authored by Staff Writer. Content ©
From 1954 into 1982, the United States military relied on the EC-121 "Warning Star" platform as its primary Airborne Early Warning (AEW) system. AEW aircraft were developed to provide battlespace command and direction for allied forces through the tracking of all presented aircraft, ground vehicles and naval assets. This sort of management proved ultra-critical in the evolving age of electronics and processing which saw an elevated reliance on all manner of scanning, tracking and detection. Aircraft like the EC-121, therefore, served as "directors" to oversee a given battlefield from lofty positions in the sky. The Warning Star series, based on Lockheed's "Constellation" line, fulfilled this requirement and was produced across 232 examples, largely remembered for their triple-fin tails and hump back fuselage spines. These aircraft served throughout the Vietnam War (1955-1975) and were popularly known by their nickname of "Connie", of course born of the original Constellation name.

Into the 1960s, the United States Air Force (USAF) was already planning for a new AEW platform with much improved battlespace capabilities and would serve as a direct successor to the EC-121 line. Turbofan jet technology now allowed for larger aircraft to fly farther and higher than previous and the Boeing 707 was formally selected as the "carrier" for a powerfully advanced radar system. Two systems were then trialled on two Boeing 707 airframes - one radar from Westinghouse and the other from competing Hughes. The Westinghouse design was officially selected and the resulting aircraft became the E-3 "Sentry". Sixty-eight E-3s were produced from 1977 into 1992. The modern E-3 is given the descriptor of "Airborne Early Warning and Control" (AEW&C) to which the common term of "AWACs" is derived.

Beyond the USAF's usage of the type, the aircraft was also sold to NATO, the British Royal Air Force (RAF), the French Air Force and Saudi Arabia. After the United States, NATO became the largest operator with eighteen airframes in its stable.

Structurally, the E-3 retains much of the appearance of the civilian-minded Boeing 707 model. It sports low-mounted, swept monoplane wings in a traditional configuration at amidships. The cockpit flight deck is at the extreme front of the tubular fuselage aft of a short nosecone assembly. The fuselage houses the mission crew and their applicable system consoles. The empennage includes a single vertical tail fin and low-mounted horizontal planes. The undercarriage is entirely retractable an consists of two four-wheeled main landing gear legs and a two-wheeled nose led. The most distinct feature of the design is the rotating radar assembly seated atop a strut support network aft of the main wing span and ahead of the tail unit. The radar plate turns at a rate of six revolutions per minute. Dimensions of the entire aircraft include a length of 152 feet, 11 inches, a wingspan of 145 feet, 9 inches and a height of 41 feet, 4 inches. Listed weights include 185,000 when empty and 347,000lb as a Maximum Take-Off Weight (MTOW).

Boeing E-3 Sentry (AWACS) (Cont'd)

Airborne Surveillance, Command, Control and Communications Aircraft

Boeing E-3 Sentry (AWACS) (Cont'd)

Airborne Surveillance, Command, Control and Communications Aircraft

The E-3 was born from the original "EX-137D" prototype of which two were constructed to evaluate the competing radar installations. These were powered by 4 x Pratt & Whitney T3D series jet engines (the same as found on the Boeing B-52H "Stratofortress" and Lockheed C-131 "Starlifter"). The initial production mark was the E-3A and powered by Pratt & Whitney TF33 series jet engines and outfitted with the AN/APY-1 series radar suite. Twenty-four were produced. The E-3B was an improved form of which 24 were converted to the new standard from existing E-3A models. The E-3C was outfitted with the more powerful AN/APY-2 radar system and added crew control stations. Ten of the type were produced with nine born from an original E-3B order for 34 B-model aircraft. One E-3C was used as the "JE-3C" for testing by Boeing. E-3D and E-3F were foreign export marks - the former to the RAF and the latter to the French Air Force. The D-model incorporated CFM56 series engines and were designated "Sentry AEW.1" for RAF service. F-models to the French Air Force were similarly powered though outfitted with French-required systems. The British received seven aircraft to the French's four. Saudi E-3's are represented through five E-3A models and a further eight KE-3A used in the aerial tanker role.

As an interesting aside, Iran had ordered some ten E-3 Sentry aircraft for its revamped air force, however, the 1979 Revolution terminated any possibility of a sale from the United States to the Islamic nation.

The most recent E-3 Sentry production mark is the "E-3G" which brings about major improvements through the Block 40/45 initiative. The initiative - currently (2013) under testing with Boeing - will upgrade avionics and mission performance capabilities as well as onboard electronics. A further proposed upgrade could see the old-style cockpit replaced with a more modern design including an "all-glass" approach now common to current- and next-generation aircraft.

The primary USAF/NATO E-3 includes a flight crew of four personnel with 13 to 19 mission crew added. These aircraft are powered by 4 x Pratt & Whitney TF33-PW-100A turbofan engines, each delivering 21,500lbs of thrust. Maximum speed is 530 miles per hour with a range out to 4,000 nautical miles while operating at service ceilings nearing 41,000 feet. The aircraft has a mission endurance time of eight hours which is crucial to an ongoing military campaign. It can be refueled from USAF KC-135 Stratotankers and similar for much-improved operational ranges and mission endurance times.

The E-3 has served an active operational service life since its inception. Its baptism of fire occurred during the 1990 coalition deployment to the Persian Gulf region during Operation Desert Shield. Their capabilities were put to the ultimate test in 1991's Operation Desert Storm which saw the quick and methodical destruction of Saddam Hussein's Iraqi Air Force (followed by its highly vaunted Army). E-3's recorded 379 sorties during the air war and ground phase that followed. Since then, the type has served well across more modern engagements including the recent NATO involvement during the 2011 Libyan Civil War - keeping the Libyan Air Force and Army at bay.

Program Updates

July 2017 - Boeing has won a contract to upgrade the French fleet of E-3 Sentry aircraft. The upgrades (digital glass cockpits, updated navigation and airspace equipment) will follow those already being applied to both United States Air Force and NATO Sentry aircraft. The work will span from 2019 into 2024 on French soil (Air France).


YEAR: 1977
STATUS: Active, In-Service
MANUFACTURER(S): Boeing Aerospace Company - USA
CREW: 4 + 19
LENGTH: 152.92 ft (46.61 m)
WIDTH: 145.73 ft (44.42 m)
HEIGHT: 41.34 ft (12.6 m)
EMPTY WEIGHT: 161,996 lb (73,480 kg)
MTOW: 324,961 lb (147,400 kg)
POWER: 4 x Pratt and Whitney TF33-PW-100A turbofan engines developing 21,500 lb thrust each.
SPEED: 531 mph (855 kph; 462 kts)
CEILING: 41,010 feet (12,500 m; 7.77 miles)
RANGE: 4,598 miles (7,400 km; 3,996 nm)
RATE-OF-CLIMB: 2,000 ft/min (610 m/min)
OPERATORS: France; NATO; Saudi Arabia; United Kingdom; United States

None. Mission equipment carried for battlespace direction.
Variants / Models

• EC-137D - Two Examples Prototype AWACS; fitting JT3D series engines; first prototype fitting Westinghouse-brand radar system whilst second prototype fitting Hughes-brand radar system; later converted to E-3A standard and fitting TF33 series engines.
• E-3A - Initial Production Model Designation; fitted with TF33 engines; AN/APY-1 series radar system; 25 examples produced for USAF (later converted to E-3B standard); 18 examples produced for NATO usage fitting TF33 series engines; 5 examples produced for Saudi Arabia fitting CFM56 engines.
• E-3B - Based on E-3A models but featuring improvements; 24 conversion examples.
• E-3C - Fitted with AN/APY-2 radar system; system improvements throughout; 9 examples produced.
• JE-3C - One-Off Trials Aircraft utilized by Boeing; later becoming an E-3C.
• E-3D - British production E-3C model; fitted with CFM56 engines; 7 examples produced.
• E-3F - French production E-3C model; fitted with CFM56 engines; 4 examples produced.
• E-3G - Block 40/45 modification; Airframe Modernization Program (AMP); USAF usage.
• KE-3A - Saudi Arabian tankers fitted with CFM56 engines; 8 examples produced.
• Sentry AEW.1 - British Designation of E-3D model.

Our Data Modules allow for quick visual reference when comparing a single entry against contemporary designs. Areas covered include general ratings, speed assessments, and relative ranges based on distances between major cities.

Image of collection of graph types

Relative Maximum Speed
Hi: 750mph
Lo: 375mph
This entry's maximum listed speed (531mph).

Graph average of 562.5 miles-per-hour.
City-to-City Ranges
Graph showcases the Boeing E-3C Sentry (AWACS)'s operational range (on internal fuel) when compared to distances between major cities.
Aviation Era
Pie graph section
Pie graph section
Pie graph section
Pie graph section
Pie graph section
Useful in showcasing the era cross-over of particular aircraft/aerospace designs.
Unit Production (68)
Comm. Market HI*: 44,000 units
Military Market HI**: 36,183 units

  * Commercial Market High belongs to Cessna 172.

  ** Military Market High belongs to Ilyushin Il-2.

Altitude Visualization
Small airplane graphic
Supported Roles
Ground Attack
Aerial Tanker
A2A=Air-to-Air; UAV=Unmanned; CAS=Close Support; ASW=Anti-Submarine; AEW=Airborne Early Warning; MEDEVAC=Medical Evac; EW=Electronic Warfare; SAR=Search-Rescue
Commitments / Honors
Military lapel ribbon for Operation Allied Force
Military lapel ribbon for the Arab-Israeli War
Military lapel ribbon for the Battle of Britain
Military lapel ribbon for the Battle of Midway
Military lapel ribbon for the Berlin Airlift
Military lapel ribbon for the Chaco War
Military lapel ribbon for the Cold War
Military lapel ribbon for the Cuban Missile Crisis
Military lapel ribbon for pioneering aircraft
Military lapel ribbon for the Falklands War
Military lapel ribbon for the French-Indochina War
Military lapel ribbon for the Golden Age of Flight
Military lapel ribbon for the 1991 Gulf War
Military lapel ribbon for the Indo-Pak Wars
Military lapel ribbon for the Iran-Iraq War
Military lapel ribbon for the Korean War
Military lapel ribbon for the 1982 Lebanon War
Military lapel ribbon for the Malayan Emergency
Military lapel ribbon representing modern aircraft
Military lapel ribbon for the attack on Pearl Harbor
Military lapel ribbon for the Six Day War
Military lapel ribbon for the Soviet-Afghan War
Military lapel ribbon for the Spanish Civil War
Military lapel ribbon for the Suez Crisis
Military lapel ribbon for the Vietnam War
Military lapel ribbon for Warsaw Pact of the Cold War-era
Military lapel ribbon for the WASP (WW2)
Military lapel ribbon for the World War 1
Military lapel ribbon for the World War 2
Military lapel ribbon for the Yom Kippur War
Military lapel ribbon for experimental x-plane aircraft
* Ribbons not necessarily indicative of actual historical campaign ribbons. Ribbons are clickable to their respective campaigns/operations.

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