NATO awarded Boeing Co a billion-dollar contract on Wednesday to upgrade its fleet of AWACS reconnaissance planes, a deal that officials said shows the strength of transatlantic defence cooperation days before an alliance summit in London.
Initially flown in 1982 and repeatedly modernised, the Boeing-made planes – which can detect hostile aircraft, missiles, ships and other weaponry far beyond NATO borders – will be overhauled with more powerful computer processors, servers and other equipment.
The 14 planes, positioned at an airbase in Germany, can already exchange information via digital data links with ground-based, sea-based and airborne commanders. But they need greater capacity to transmit data as technology continues to develop.
The upgrade will keep one of the few military assets owned and operated directly by the Western alliance in service until 2035.
AWACS have been flown in support of the international coalition against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) group, gazing deep into Syria from Turkey – as well as along NATO’s eastern flank following Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
“The modernisation will ensure that NATO remains at the leading edge of technology,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told a news conference alongside Boeing President Michael Arthur, standing in front of one of the AWACS planes.
“It will provide AWACS with sophisticated new communications and networking capabilities, so these aircraft can continue their vital missions,” he added.
One NATO official described AWACS – which have crews drawn from 18 different allies – as a symbol of NATO unity at a time when United States President Donald Trump has questioned its value and French President Emmanuel Macron last month said NATO was dying.
The upgrade will be funded by 16 NATO allies, including the US, Germany, Turkey, Italy and Spain. Some work will be subcontracted to European suppliers, including Leonardo and Airbus.
After years of delays, the high-altitude unmanned aerial vehicles made by Northrop Grumman give the alliance its own spy drones for the first time and will work with the AWACS planes to protect ground troops, as well as other tasks.
The drones will be able to fly for up to 30 hours at a time in all weather, providing near real-time surveillance data.