IAI’s combat-proven Conformal Airborne Early Warning and Control (CAEW) aircraft have a proven record performing missions better than the bigger legacy AWACS, for longer durations, at a much lower cost.

Since the invention of radars Air Forces have relied on strategic networks of radars, communications and command centers to plan, manage and coordinate air activity over theaters of operations in a friendly and contested airspace.

The introduction of Airborne Early Warning (AEW) mechanical rotated radars in the 1960s made a dramatic change, extending AEW and control (AEW&C) over large airspace, covering terrain and ocean areas that were too extensive and complex for terrestrial based radar coverage. While technology has evolved since the days of those first “AWACS” (Airborne Warning and Control System) planes, the legacy platforms currently used for AEW&C systems are aging, inefficient and becoming too costly to operate.

“Radar technologies and electronics have made quantum leaps since those days in terms of weight, size, power, and performance,” Avishai Izhakian, Deputy General Manager, Airborne Systems, and Radars Division at ELTA Systems told Defense-Update. According to Izhakian, today’s radars are smaller, more efficient, more reliable and agile enabling missions to be carried out more effectively over a longer range, more effectively and efficiently.

“Modern Active Electronic Beam Steering Arrays (AESA) render the distinctive rotodome redundant, introducing lighter more efficient, conformal configurations for radars, enabling the use of business jets for the AEW role,” Izhakian added. The fact that these modern radars are not reliant on the complexes of moving parts further reduce weight and improves performance. “By steering the radar beams electronically, rather than mechanically significantly faster update rates can be achieved, enabling the detection and tracking of modern threats such as fast cruise missiles and unmanned platforms,” Izhakian explained.

Planes such as the Gulfstream G550 are now rated as the platform of choice for special mission aircraft. Specially modified and equipped G550 platforms now include AEW&C, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR), Signal Intelligence (SIGINT), Electronic Warfare (EW) and more.

Such platforms offer many advantages over larger, legacy commercial airframes, such as the Boeing 707, 737, 767 and Airbus 320/330 class aircraft. A very successful example is G550 CAEW aircraft developed by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) subsidiary Elta Systems, using the company’s ELW-2085 AEW system. In this configuration, the G550 was modified extensively, adding ‘cheeks’ on the fuselage sides, a bulkier nose, and a tail radome, to accommodate four AESA radars. The latest generation of CAEW employs a new radar based on Gallium Nitride (GaN) technology that delivers higher power at higher efficiency, that contributes to improved detection and tracking performance.

By collecting information across different spectral bands and domains, the CAEW provides a full 360o air situation picture, integrated with IFF ESM and Data Link data, covering all heights and terrains.

Cleared for operations at a ceiling of 41,000 ft., rapid climb rate and high subsonic speed, the G550 CAEW is optimally positioned above civilian air traffic, can quickly reach the area of interest, and extend surveillance over the horizon up to 450 kilometers. Large fuel capacity and engine economy support missions up to 10 hours, without aerial refueling, operating all mission systems and with a full crew on board.

Each CAEW uses multiple terminals that extend voice and data communications and wideband datalinks over Line of Sight (LOS) and satellite communications (SATCOM), allowing for additional operators on the ground to augment the airborne crew in real time.

Onboard systems include radar, SIGINT, and communications suits developed in-house by the company, utilizing standard COTS computers and software. ELTA’s software-based systems allow maximum flexibility in operation and ease of adaptation to specific needs.

Based on an airframe designed for passenger comfort, operational efficiency, and reliability, the G550 CAEW offers a spacious cabin accommodating six multi-mission operating workstations, along with the power and cooling resources necessary to support all systems. An added benefit is the low cabin pressurization that is set to 5,000 ft., thus reducing operator fatigue on long missions.

As a business jet platform, CAEW can land at any airport, even on short strips, and, return on station after a short ground cycle much faster than would take to perform in-flight refueling. The quick turnaround between missions, proven operational mission readiness of more than 90 percent, and low operating costs enables users to maintain 24/7 operations with smaller fleets. Analysis has shown that a small fleet of CAEW aircraft comfortably fulfills the missions carried out by much larger legacy fleets of E-3 Sentry or equivalent aircraft.

As a pioneer in this field, IAI/ELTA, has fielded such airborne systems with air forces in five continents. The CAEW has been in service since 2008 and is currently operational as a uniquely strategic asset with three air forces. The first entered service with the Israel Air Force in 2008 and the most recent NATO compliant version was delivered to the Italian Air Force since 2017.

Interoperability is a major requirement for such strategic systems and involved close cooperation with the Leonardo Group as a subcontractor for NATO compliant communications and navigation equipment. With that delivery, the CAEW is now fully integrated and compatible with NATO standards and is ready to support other users in the European continent and abroad.

The proven maturity, high performance, and operational efficiency position CAEW as a leading contender for the UK AWACS Recap program and other European Airborne Early Warning modernizations.