This week I've been in Cologne, Germany, and in between sampling Gluhwein in the city's many Weihnachtsmarkts and admiring the soaring spires of the Dom, I've been attending an IQPC Defense conference on airborne early warning.
One recurrent theme: the rather scary costs of operating, sustaining and modernizing the world's fleets of Boeing E-3 Airborne Warning & Control System (AWACS) aircraft.
AWACS was a huge technological achievement, designed primarily to protect the West from low-flying MiG-27 and Su-24 attack aircraft. The project got started in the late 1960s and the engineers went with what worked: a colossal rotodome, 33 feet across, perched on the back of a Boeing 707.
The system still works, but is showing its age. The radar was improved in the 1990s, but to drag the jet into the 21st century means changing the creaky workstations - which don't even have QWERTY keyboards - and modernizing the cockpit to meet current commercial navigation standards - because as it stands today the AWACS fleet will be barred from most airspace.
But the process has been expensive and disorganized. At Geilenkirchen air base, about an hour outside Cologne, the 17-strong joint NATO fleet has been fitted with new workstations under a $1.6 billion program called NATO Mid-Term (NMT). The US paid for almost half of it, but USAF AWACS jets are only just starting on a comparable but (in detail) entirely different upgrade, Block 40/45. The UK, meanwhile, has a plan called Project Eagle to upgrade the workstations and processing on its aircraft, but it keeps getting delayed because there's no money for it.
Also waiting to get started is Dragon, a project to fit AWACS (in the UK, US and NATO) with flight-deck improvements: today's all-steam-gauge cockpit is a museum piece. And while the UK and French aircraft have CFM56 engines, the US and NATO jets still use the medieval TF33. This not only annoys Geilenkirchen's Dutch neighbors but uses a lot of fuel and mandates inflight refuelling for most missions.
Inflight refueling, maintenance-hungry aircraft and complex equipment add up to an enormous operating cost burden. There are over 3,000 people at Geilenkirchen and the annual O&S budget is EUR285 million - $381 million - for about 10,000 flying hours. Now consider that most of those hours are for training and do the math: the direct operating cost of maintaining one 24/7 AWACS orbit for a year is over $330 million - almost a billion dollars if you factor in training.
Not all that surprising, then, that Saab and IAI-Elta are keenly promoting their AEW aircraft - smaller and vastly less expensive, as well as being more modern - to countries that operate AWACS, as well as those that could not afford it in the first place.