Last night I had one of the best seats, just behind the pilot, in a NATO E-3A airborne warning and control system (AWACS) on a mission to support Operation Unified Protector (OUP).
The night time mission by an E-3A designated NATO03 relieved an RAF E-3D flying an orbit with a 12-mile radius in the Mediterranean surprisingly close to Libya. A NATO03 crew member admitted that AWACS orbits were not as close to Libya at the beginning of OUP because of the greater surface-to-air missile threat during the early stages of the air campaign.
OUP is the first operation of a joint NATO E-3A and RAF E-3D detachment, although the British AWACS is part of the NATO Airborne Early Warning and Control Force and has exercised with NATO E-3As. A single AWACS covers the entire operational area over Libya and the international waters around it, with the three NATO E-3As and two RAF E-3Ds forward-based in Trapani, Italy, plus two U.S. Air Force E-3B/Cs operating from Suda Bay, Crete, and a French air force E-3D flying from Avord in central France ensuring that this coverage is 24 hours.
Even more multinational than the allied AWACS assets participating in OUP are the crews of the NATO E-3As. As Germany is not participating in OUP, crew members of other NATO nations have to make up the difference (although Germany is making up for it by providing extra crews for E-3As operating over Afghanistan).
Half the 18-strong crew of NATO03 was U.S. (including one female surveillance operator) but the cockpit was manned by a Canadian pilot, Dutch co-pilot, Spanish navigator and Italian flight engineer. The remaining 14-strong mission crew was led by a Spaniard, and included Canadian, Dutch, Norwegian, Polish as well as U.S. personnel. I am not aware of another example of this level of multinationality down to the level of individuals.
Despite computer problems affecting communications at the beginning of the seven-hour mission, NATO03 provided command and control for what was a relatively light night compared to the heavy attacks on Tripoli earlier this week. During its 4.2 hours in orbit, NATO03 provided control of nearly 50 aircraft and attacks on several targets and coordinated 28 air-to-air refuelings delivering 290,600 lb of fuel.
The mission had its lighter moments, too. Immediately after we took off from Trapani, the flight crew joked that they could see the swimming pool of their hotel and just after we reached an altitude of 29,000 feet, the Spanish flight engineer pointed out to me the lights of Malta, adding, "If I tell you more, I will have to kill you."