In recent years, AWACS units have gradually been slowing down their upgrades, in some cases limited to improving communications only. Some have argued that there is no need to improve their capabilities as the strategic environment we are in has less and less missions where these assets may be put into good use. Further more, because of the relatively lower cost, expendability, exportability and lack of human intervention -to a degree-, the UAV has been seeking up on the AWACS´ back trying to snatch its field of expertise from its jaws.
Interesting train of thought, but highly improbable. Behind this “slowing down” is a decrease in conventional warfare scenarios, and certain upgrades are simply not necessary in order to meet these challenges with a high degree of success. Of course there are some exceptions which must attract our attention immediately: the Royal Navy´s CROWSNEST is a perfect example of not only a mere upgrade, but a whole new concept in the ASaC world which will perform brilliantly in both conventional and asymmetrical theaters, no doubt. An excellent replacement for the Searchwater. Of course, the British have the unique experience of the Falklands and how the lack of AEW during the 100 days of battle very nearly could have tilted things the other way. But thanks to that knowledge they have learnt the lesson: deployed forces (naval or otherwise) must have an overlooking eye in the theater of operations. And not just any eye, but a brain behind it who can make sound judgment calls (tactical, if you please), decide what is important and what if worthless information and disseminate it accurately to the supporting forces. In other words, someone capable of EVALUATING tactical information. Last I know, Scan Eagle had no such brain or capability as do none of the rest.
I agree that as far as obtaining information and, in certain cases, striking an enemy position, the UAV can be an outstanding asset. Intel operations demand in many cases the flexibility of these units, as do their endurance and number of sensors. But, just as nobody will ever dare suggest grounding all fighters on the grounds of “having UAV´s to do the job”, we cannot conclude that they may as well substitute AWACS units and pretend to do their job with matching results.
In months to come, I´d be very surprised if a Navy is naive enough to deploy Scan Eagle or any such like in the Indian Ocean, taking the AEW´s place as an airborne sensor. Leaving to one side the fact that Scan Eagle has no radar (and even if it did), I wonder who will compare Radar with AIS information in order to quickly pin point possible pirates?. To put it more simply, if you have 15 radar contacts and 13 AIS contacts 200miles from the mother ship, you have just located two suspects. But if you only have those 13 AIS contacts and no Radar information, how will you know if there is an incoming threat?. I´ll leave this one to the great vine (maybe even Bert and Ernie!).
The fact that E-3 have already taken Scan Eagle under control with outstanding success points out that both these capabilities are not only not competing one´s, but actually complement each other. Against the number of sensors and endurance that a UAV can provide, is the evaluating capability which all AEW aircraft possess, allowing supporting forces to receive the necessary evaluated and processed information in real time.