On one too many occasions, the AEW concept, or ASaC (Airborne Surveillance and Control), if you please, has sustained several set back´s. The development of UAS (Unmanned Aerial System), the increasingly growing evolution of the ship borne radar and the ever more outstanding capabilities of today´s fighters are partially to blame for the reduction of AEW assets. Until Operation Iraqi Freedom, Spain was the only Nation willing to sacrifice their AEW units. But this Operation proved, once again, the value of these systems, not only from a surveillance point of view, but also in their role in CAS, SCAR, CSAR and many other missions.
There are quite a few cases in which an AEW would have come in handy. I wouldn´t like to fall into the turbulent hands of virtual history, trying to analyze what could have happened if. But we all remember well the events that took place in the Falkland Isles in 1982, particularly that of HMS Sheffield, sunk to an Exocet missile fired from a Super Etendard, despite having the ever so efficient Type 1022 RADAR (later modified to increase its capabilities against low flying targets). The tactical implications have been studied in detail and little could I add to the conclusions.
Or the case of HMS Ardent, which sunk under a fierce bomb attack, not before gallantly returning fire with its main artillery. In the book “Through Fire and Water”, Mark Higgitt masterfully explains the great difficulty in engaging multiple aircraft, inbound from several bearings and with very low flying profiles. Ironically, Sea Dart and Sea Cat missiles, though efficient and reliable as they were, could not be put into proper use in these cases due, in part, to the lack of detection at greater ranges. Maybe if some sort of AEW asset were available at the moment. Or if the Earth had been completely flat.
But this short war in open waters was (so far) the very last of its kind, and the slim chances that a similar engagement take place a few short years down the line have convinced many that AEW is no longer that necessary.
However, in 2006 irony kicked in hard when a C-802 Saccade scored an impact on an Israeli corvette and a merchant ship many miles away, launched from a canister fitted truck. Try to think of a Saccade inbound at 0.9Mach and a little under 80ft. Even if you are capable of achieving detection at the first possible moment, either you make your first reaction count or there is virtually no time for a second chance. To add to the irony, the RCS (RADAR Cross Section) of some missiles is simply too small. In other cases, such as the SS-N-12 Sandbox, the speed they achieve (2.0-2.4Mach) is quite simply so great that, even if we allow for a 20% error in its speed calculation, we would still be facing a missile coming in at well over the 1.5 Mach mark.
Samuel Coleridge once said that “If men cold learn from History, what lesson it might teach us!. But passion and party blind our eyes, and the light which experience gives us is a lantern on the stern which shines on the waves behind us” . The quote is certainly fitting, with the exception of the Royal Navy, which quickly learned the lessons during the fight for the Falklands and in record time had THORN-EMI equip a Westland Sea King with the Searchwater Mk-II, de facto creating the very first helicopter embarked AEW. Since then, the word “Searchwater” has been praised by escorts and fighters alike, and feared by foes.
No doubt that early warning is of great benefit to any unit within a naval force. To some, is provides ample tie and information to adequately program ECM systems (soft and hard kill), and to others it simply helps those operating pseudo automatic CIWS systems or any such like. The possibilities are endless but, in any case, the simple act of providing a bearing, distance and speed is no less than crucial information. I´ve often been assured by engineers that some system, at the time under my boot, only needed a little over 2 sec to react to an incoming threat. Well, I´ve always been speedy in replying that I shall do my utmost to not put that feature to test.
But some new generation AEW systems, now called ASaC´s, have achieved outstanding results. The most brilliant of these kits has and continues to be the Searchwater MK-VII. It´s role during Operation Iraqi Freedom has been decisive. New upgrades such as LINK-16, Doppler Pulsed RADAR o GMTI are only small examples of the capabilities that it can deliver in the battle field (no need to spell out the details). During this war, Operation TELIC marked the beginning of the landings, not only as surveillance units but also as tactical control units, providing on the scene information and guidance. No SPY RADAR, no APAR no nothing. Just an evolution of the old Mk-II, fitted in a 1960´s helicopter which can operate from a large aircraft carrier or s simple escort with a small flight deck. It can´t get any easier than that.
During those months, not many AEW assets in the world were capable of operating over land guaranteeing detection at very low altitudes. It proved its value and many have seen it fit to try and develop something similar. In any case, this excellent asset has, in a way, created a small precedent as it has successfully proven that escorts no longer need to close in on the shore line in order to guarantee the successful protection of its valuable units, amphibious forces or attack aircraft. I´ll leave to the gods the question of whether this is the moment to begin developing a similar ASaC within NATO countries to achieve low costs. For the time being, I´ll just stick to the fact that, this ASaC and its mother ship is, as of now, a difficult duo to beat.