The race is on to replace NATO’s early-warning aircraft fleet

WASHINGTON — On June 29, a solicitation titled, “NATO International Competitive Bidding (ICB): Alliance Future Surveillance and Control (AFSC) Project-Risk Reduction and Feasibility Study,” popped up on Beta.Sam.Gov, a U.S. government contracting site.

The appearance of the notice represented an early, but important, step in a long process of finding a replacement for NATO’s fleet of airborne early warning and control AWACS planes, which have seen increased usage over the past five years.

“What you’ve spotted online is the U.S. government preparing U.S. companies for this upcoming call for bids,” a NATO official, speaking on background, explained to Defense News. “Allies will then need to decide what form [the new design] should take.”

Currently, 18 nations participate in NATO’s early-warning-and-control force, which operates 14 E-3As: Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States. The planes are based at NATO Air Base Geilenkirchen, Germany.

NATO plans to spend $1 billion for a final service life extension of the aircraft, which would keep it flying until 2035. Any delays in the decision-making process will likely increase the cost for the fleet, meaning there is heavy pressure to hit key milestones for an alliance that rarely buys military gear as collective.

As of July, six consortia from across the alliance have delivered concept studies to NATO leadership; Brussels is “currently assessing” those concepts with the goal of defining a “more narrow scope” for requirements before the end of 2020, per the NATO official. That will be followed in 2021 by another round of responses from industry, and a 2023 deep dive by NATO which is likely to set up the final requirements. Overall, the development stage through 2023 has a budget of EUR 118.2 million ($139 million).

In the U.S., expect Boeing and Northrop Grumman to be in the running, while the likely European contenders would be Saab and Airbus, according to Doug Barrie, senior military air analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank in London. “With all the usual caveats, the most likely outcome is that it is U.S., perhaps with some European add-ons,” Barrie predicts.

Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Teal Group, agrees that a “U.S. prime, and lots of European mandates for local sustainment, support, and upgrade work” is a likely outcome.

“The European industrial role is a bit complicated by the fact that Airbus has zero experience here,” Aboulafia argued. “Saab certainly can do the job, but GlobalEye simply doesn’t have the capabilities of a higher-end system, which means Boeing, or, just conceivably, Northrop Grumman/Lockheed Martin.”

Firms that end up as second-tier suppliers may still end up with a strong work share, depending on how the project shapes up. The official NATO line on the program follows the “system of systems” approach currently popular inside the U.S. Air Force, with the idea that a single platform may not be the optimal solution.

“The replacement for the AWACS aircraft could include different combinations of systems in the air, on land, at sea, in space and in cyberspace,” the NATO official said. “The aim is for the solution to be ready by 2035, when the AWACS aircraft reach the end of their service life.”

Barrie sees costs and benefits to either approach, noting that a distributed system “is less vulnerable overall to kinetic attack but is heavily reliant on connectivity,” while a traditional setup “is more vulnerable to physical attack, but if there is onboard command and control less reliant overall on wider connectivity and off-board analysis.”

Adds Aboulafia, “That system-of-systems approach is a good talking point, but creating the broader architecture is quite complicated. Also, creating a system is kind of a given for airborne early warning, but there needs to be a central platform doing the bulk of the heavy lifting. Thus, the teams will need to revolve around a platform prime.”

While the overall price of the program will depend on the final design, Aboulafia predicts everything put together could cost in the $10 billion range to buy an equivalent of the original 17-aircraft NATO purchase. And that money may well be worth it for the alliance, according to Barrie.

“It’s been a practical and a symbolic asset,” he said, “and in the current European security environment air surveillance and C2 isn’t becoming any less important.”

Valerie Insinna in Washington contributed to this report.

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