During the 1960s, it became clear that military aircraft could no longer fly high enough to avoid surface-to-air missiles. To survive in an increasingly lethal air defence environment, aircraft were forced down to levels little higher than tree-top. By the 1970s, the requirement to detect high speed combat aircraft, with low level penetration capability, made it necessary to augment NATO’s system of ground-based radars with new effective means.
The NATO military authorities determined that an Airborne Early Warning (AEW) capability would provide the key to meeting the challenge. The operational requirement for the NATO AEW system stressed the need to detect small cross-section, high speed intruder aircraft at long range. The need to detect maritime surface targets was also specified to account for the geographical regions in which the AEW aircraft would be required to operate. The inherent mobility and flexibility of the system, especially for control function, were also foreseen by NATO planners as providing air, maritime, and land force commanders with an enhanced Command and Control (C2) capability. The creation of a NATO AEW Force was therefore designed to make a significant contribution to the Alliance’s deterrent posture.
In December 1978, the NATO Defence Planning Committee approved the joint acquisition of 18 aircraft based on the US Air Force (USAF) Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) to be operated as an Alliance-owned Airborne Early Warning system. In addition to the delivery of the 18 E-3A aircraft between February 1982 and May 1985, the NAEW&C programme included the upgrade of 40 NATO Air Defence Ground Environment (NADGE) sites and the establishment of a Main Operating Base (MOB) at Geilenkirchen, Germany, along with three Forward Operating Bases (FOB) and a Forward Operating Location.