TechFrench E-3 Sentry aircraft retreats after Russian threat over Black Sea

French E‑3 Sentry aircraft retreats after Russian threat over Black Sea

E-3 Sentry aircraft belonging to NATO - illustrative photo
E-3 Sentry aircraft belonging to NATO - illustrative photo
Images source: © NATO
3:33 PM EST, March 1, 2024
The incident unfolded in November 2023, according to French sources. Despite being in a region where it was legally permitted to operate—even amidst the ongoing war in Ukraine—the pilot of the valuable but vulnerable E-3 Sentry chose to err on the side of caution and turn back.
This event marked yet another instance of Russian forces menacing a NATO reconnaissance aircraft. A previous episode in 2022 involved a British Boeing RC-135, which was also patrolling over the Black Sea when it was targeted with an air-to-air missile by the Russians.

The E-3 Sentry Explained

The E-3 Sentry is an Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft, notable for its large rotating radar dome mounted above its fuselage. This feature enables the E-3 to detect aircraft over distances of 250-400 miles. Crucially, it can also track objects flying low to the ground, distinguishing them against the terrain.
The inception of the early warning E-3 Sentry dates back to the 1970s, evolving from a modified Boeing 707 passenger aircraft equipped with AN/APS-133 and either AN/APY-1 or AN/APY-2 radars.
A standard crew comprises four individuals plus up to 19 controllers who manage radar operations and onboard avionics across 14 stations. The equipment specifics can vary by user (for example, aircraft operated by Saudi Arabia include an additional toilet).
Dimensions of the E-3 Sentry are notable: 151 feet in length, a wingspan of 144 feet, and a weight of 343,000 pounds. It boasts a top speed of 522 mph, with a more typical cruising speed of 360 mph. Thanks to its internal fuel tanks, it has a range of up to 4,971 miles, extendable with air-to-air refueling.

Global Operators of the E-3 Sentry

France counts itself among the four current operators of the E-3 Sentry, alongside the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Chile. Meanwhile, Great Britain recently transitioned from the E-3 to the more advanced E-7 Wedgetail aircraft.
The United States is in the process of phasing out its E-3 fleet, with France also planning to upgrade its AWACS capability (specifically, the E-3F variant) to the modern Saab GlobalEye, a Swedish design, in the near future.
Additionally, NATO independently maintains a fleet of 14 E-3 Sentries, from an original order of 18. The alliance has committed to operating these aircraft until 2035, albeit with significant modernizations scheduled for completion by 2026. Upgrades will encompass enhanced communication systems, expanded data transmission capabilities, and satellite communications integration.
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