USAF receives first DRAGON-upgraded AWACS aircraft

The US Air Force (USAF) has received back into service the first Boeing E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning And Control System (AWACS) aircraft to go through the Diminishing manufacturing sources Replacement of Avionics for Global Operations and Navigation (DRAGON) cockpit modernisation programme, the service announced on 17 January.

Inside the cockpit of the first of 24 E-3 Sentry AWACS aircraft to undergo the 'glass' flight deck modification known as DRAGON. (USAF)Inside the cockpit of the first of 24 E-3 Sentry AWACS aircraft to undergo the ‘glass’ flight deck modification known as DRAGON. (USAF)

The first of 24 aircraft to be upgraded arrived back at Tinker Air Force Base (AFB) in Oklahoma on 9 January, the Air Combat Command (ACC) said.

As noted by the ACC, the DRAGON programme affords three primary improvements to the AWACS platforms, namely: compliance with Global Air Traffic Management (GATM) rules for operations in controlled airspace; replacing outdated and obsolete 1970s technology with modern systems; and automating the navigational functions of the aircraft and providing weather radar information, so reducing crew workload and reducing the flight deck from three to two personnel.

“The DRAGON upgrade brings our fleet into the modern age and will provide a greater operational capacity beyond 2025,” Lieutenant Colonel Chris Hansen, 552nd ACW DRAGON project officer, was quoted as saying. With training and operational tests now set to follow for the first DRAGON aircraft, the remaining 23 will be delivered over the next eight years.

Based on a modified Boeing 707/320 commercial airframe, the E-3 Sentry is built around a 9.1 m diameter elliptically cross-sectioned rotating radome that sits atop the fuselage. This radar has a range of more than 400 km (which equates to a coverage area of more than 500,000 km 2 of airspace) to look down and detect, identify, and track low-flying aircraft over land or water. It achieves this by eliminating ground/water clutter returns that confuse other radar systems. Crew members perform surveillance, identification, weapons control, battle management, and communications functions.

The USAF has 31 E-3 AWACS platforms in service today. Other operators comprise NATO (16), the United Kingdom (6), Saudi Arabia (5), and France (4), along with four…

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