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NATO's open door

GK bits

Andrew Bates reports on the AWACS 25th Anniversary Open Days, held at Geilenkirchen on 16-17 June 2007. Pictures by Gary Parsons

Back in the early 1970s, studies directed by NATO's major military commanders indicated that an airborne early warning (AEW) radar system would significantly enhance the Alliance's air defence capability. Following this, in December 1978 the Defence Planning Committee signed a memorandum of understanding to buy and operate a NATO-owned AEW system. By this decision, the member nations embarked on what was to be NATO's largest commonly-funded acquisition programme.

What is today known as the NATO Airborne Early Warning and Control Force (NAEW&CF) was established at the former RAF airfield at Geilenkirchen in January 1980 and granted full NATO command headquarters status by NATO's Defence Planning Committee on 17 October 1980. The first of an eventual total of eighteen Boeing E-3A aircraft touched down at Geilenkirchen on 24 February 1982, with the activation ceremony being presided over by NATO Secretary General Joseph Luns just over four months later on 28 June 1982.

After twenty-five successful years of conducting countless air surveillance missions, both over Europe and elsewhere around the globe, the gates to Geilenkirchen were thrown open to the public during two days in mid-June so that they could participate in the silver anniversary celebrations. This was both a unique and rare opportunity to visit such an important and high profile airfield and was certainly not an opportunity to be missed. Possibly helped by the fine and dry weather, attendance figures for the weekend's festivities exceeded everyone's expectations, with well over 100,000 visitors being recorded over the two days. As a result of the especially large crowds arriving on the Sunday, both the admission time and closing time for the event were extended to accommodate all the enthusiastic visitors.

"We've never had a celebration like this before," exclaimed a delighted Brigadier General Stephen D. Schmidt, Commander of the E-3A Component. "We wanted to share this special event with the public and the huge number of visitors shows us there is great interest in the Component and its mission." Conducting his welcome speech to the crowd, Brigadier General Schmidt continued; "The unique nature of the Component comes from our fifteen participating nations, which contribute the personnel and resources that keep this Component flying. Our Component is an example of international cooperation at its very best. People from fifteen NATO member states have been working together here for twenty-five years and this celebration shows how successful this joint effort has been. This event was truly an amazing success. We especially want to thank all of our neighbours and the local authorities for helping make this a special event that the entire community could enjoy. Without the cooperation and support of the local community such a large scale celebration wouldn't have been possible."

As a further demonstration of the multi-national participation involved in the celebrations, two of the large hangars normally used for maintenance work on the aircraft had national display stands from the individual NATO countries, as well as a show programme featuring twenty-three music and dance groups, which also featured an anniversary parade with international military bands. "It has been a super celebration", said Lt Col Alois Jerenko, chief of the organisation committee. "Thanks to all the members of the committee and the weekend volunteers, we were able to organise this and provide an insight into the multicultural community of the fifteen nations."

Over the past twenty-five years, the Component has made a significant impact in promoting peace, stability, and global security. In the late eighties and early nineties the E-3A aircraft provided critical air surveillance and control capabilities for NATO and from July 1992 to December 2004, the Component performed missions in the Balkans to uphold the United Nations' resolutions in the former Yugoslavia.

In recent years support has been provided for a fair number of selected major events, including the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Athens, the Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, the 2006 World Cup and even the funeral of Pope John Paul II. Additionally the E-3A Component provided surveillance capabilities to the United States following 9/11 and, almost two years later, personnel and aircraft conducted surveillance operations during Operation Crescent Guard, initiated by a request from Turkey for NATO assistance due to the possible threat posed during the second Gulf conflict.

The event itself did not feature any flying displays but did attract more than forty aircraft from seventeen nations, which were laid out in a static display over a two-thousand metre stretch on the main apron. For many enthusiasts there was plenty to savour, and apart from a few exceptions, many of the participants were generally arranged in reasonable positions for photography.

There were a number of highlights within the display and no doubt everyone had their own favourites, but especially welcome were the pair of Hungarian Gripens (one single and one twin seat variant), a pair of Turkish F-4E Phantoms, the Polish Su-22UM-3K, Hellenic C-27J and pair of A-7E Corsairs, which also presented another opportunity to see the superb Tiger-schemed example that has attended RIAT recently. Other gems included a pair of Portuguese Alpha Jets, one in a striking 'Asas De Portugal' colour scheme, a Swiss and Spanish Hornet, Italian Tornado, German Eurofighter and at the heavy end of the spectrum, a Barksdale based B-52H.

Taking pride of place in the middle of the static display was NATO E-3A LX-N90443, now beautifully finished in an extremely attractive 25th anniversary colour scheme. There were a number of other E-3 airframes on display, all open to the public and attracting long queues of people eager to climb aboard. These included both an RAF and French example but surprisingly there was no sign of a USAF E-3, although the US Navy had a least joined the party with an E-6 Mercury.

Standing by to field questions to the varied groups of people coming onboard the E-3s that were open to the public were a number of NATO crewmembers, all speaking Dutch, German, English, French, and Italian as required. The crews worked in concert to conduct guided tours of the aircraft and their systems. "It's definitely a unique experience," said Captain Chris Pittman, flight commander and an E-3 navigator. "You can have up to fourteen different countries at any one time, all flying on the jet, communicating on the radio, and executing the mission, and they always get it done."

The Component consists of five main functional wings, each commanded by a colonel from a variety of NATO nations. The position of the Component commander alternates between a German and American brigadier general. Overall manning of the Component consists of 3,100 multinational military and civilian members. Component members live in more than ninety communities in the triangle formed by the borders of Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium. Naturally, with so many posts, Geilenkirchen Air Base is the most important employer and the most significant economic factor in the region.

"There is no other internationally integrated crew anywhere in the world like the one we have here at the Component," continued Brigadier General Schmidt. "Multinational crewmembers from nations that would normally never have the opportunity to work together are flying side-by-side every day and it has worked out great."

The northern-Germany based E-3 Sentry component that was initially activated to provide air defence capabilities against the potential threat of low-flying Warsaw Pact aircraft is now the only permanently-assigned member of the rotationally-organised NATO Response Force, or NRF. As an NRF member, the Component is now charged with being capable of responding to any global threat within five days. "We're here today to celebrate the long service and support we've experienced here from the nations that support us and the local communities that support us," Brigadier General Schmidt said. "We've had a long record of flying success and mission accomplishment and we thought it was time to celebrate that."

The 25th anniversary of the NATO E-3A Component represents twenty-five years of successful cooperation, in which the members of the world's only multinational operational flying unit pursue a common goal: safeguarding the airspace worldwide. With the success of this anniversary event, hopefully it won't be too long before another open day is scheduled.


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