AWACS receives new upgrades

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Jacob Jimenez
  • 62nd Airlift Wing Public Affairs
Airmen of the AWACS Joint Test Force in Seattle, Washington have recently completed testing for an upgrade to the E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System. The AWACS Joint Test Force is comprised of Air Combat Command personnel assigned to Detachment 1, 605th Test and Evaluation Squadron, along with Air Force Material Command personnel belonging to the 96th Operations Group Detachment 2.

Three years in the works, the new system upgrade is part of a large-scale DOD-wide upgrade to provide military aircraft and surface vessels with a more secure and technologically advanced mode of combat identification.

"More than 10 years ago we realized that a more advanced capability would be needed for future combat employment; the Next Generation Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) program is that upgrade," said Capt. Bobby Thomson, Det 1 605th TES Weapons Operational Test Director.

The new upgrade is part of the Air Force's performance upgrade to the current Mark XII IFF System (Mode 4) which will allow the AWACS to communicate with other aircraft and surface vessels using the new IFF Mode 5.

Mode 5 uses more sophisticated, highly encrypted and accurate waveforms than the current IFF Mode 4. The mode's waveforms will allow vessels to communicate more data per transmission while emitting a smaller electromagnetic pulse signature that could decrease enemy interception of IFF signals.

"Mode 4 is no longer as secure as it needs to be," said Thomson. "It is outdated and no longer fully meets the needs of the warfighter. Mode 5 uses a smaller portion of the electromagnetic spectrum and sends more compressed signals that can carry more information."

Developed to provide a safer means of communication, Mode 5's highly encrypted waveforms will be less detectable and hinder decryption efforts by the enemy, said Thomson.

The new Mode 5 capability will allow friendly aircraft to remain radio silent throughout hazardous missions, with the option of remote activation of the transponder as a last resort for friendly identification. With current Mode 4 technology, complete radio silence could lead to fratricide in the battle space.

"With the new system, the friendly aircraft do not have to leave a breadcrumb trail of signals," said Thomson.

Utilizing Mode 5, along with future modifications to include Mode S currently being introduced to civilian aircraft, AWACS will be able to automatically identify vessels and receive information such as squadron, mission, flight path and altitude. Additional advantages of Mode 5 will include a more improved range and reduced interference from civilian air traffic control systems.

"The biggest asset the AWACS offers is its reach," said Thomson. "Now we can know who is coming in our airspace much sooner."

The AWACS Joint Test Force has completed 13 test flights using Mode 5 to ensure accuracy of the new equipment in an airborne environment, said Thomson.

"The 13 test flights performed were a culmination of years of lab testing and development," said Maj. Kurt Cepeda, Det 1 605th TES Commander. "The next phase of the testing will be done by operational users in the field."

Implementation of the new upgrade to the AWACS fleet is slated to begin later this year, meeting the DOD's deadline for all military aircraft to switch to Mode 5 by 2020.

"This is the latest and greatest technology to come down to the fleet and is the first major step to fielding this capability on AWACS," said Cepeda. "This is just a glimpse of the multiple programs the AWACS Joint Test Force is testing and evaluating to deliver increased combat capabilities to the warfighter."