Monday, December 17, 2007

AWACS and Hawkeye flight crews soon may disappear into the pages of history

Posted by John Keller

Way down deep, many of today's military's aircraft pilots and crew must know that their numbers will dwindle in the future as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) take over the roles of manned aircraft -- but I don't think they thought it would happen quite so soon.

Technology developments in Israel may signal the beginning of the end for pilots and crew of front-line strategic surveillance aircraft like the U.S. Air Force E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control (AWACS) aircraft and the U.S. Navy E-2 Hawkeye carrier-based radar early warning aircraft.

The Conformal Airborne Early Warning (CAEW) aircraft from the Elta Group of Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd. in Ashdod, Israel will reach initial operational capability by this winter. More importantly, the CAEW's Gulfstream G550 aircraft already is designed to operate without radar operators aboard, report our friends at According to the story Drone AEW Not Too Far Off at DefenseTech:

With a wideband datalink, it's intended to feed information to a ground station, and ultimately will be part of a tight network that also includes signals intelligence, maritime patrol and ground-surveillance G550s. The final step is to take the flight crew off the aircraft, according to Avishai Itzhakian, general manager for IAI-Elta's AEW division. Speaking at IQPC Defence's AEW conference in London last week, Itzhakian outlined the project's goal -- to provide continuous air, land, sea and electronic surveillance with a constellation of UAVs.

It's not a far leap from an unmanned Israeli surveillance and radar early warning aircraft to seeing pilotless and crewless future AWACS and Hawkeye aircraft.

When I was a cub reporter 26 years ago covering the Navy's Pacific Fleet Light Attack Wing at Lemoore Naval Air Station, Calif., I never even thought about unmanned aircraft. That was the stuff of science fiction.

The light-attack pilots I knew back then who were flying the first F/A-18 Hornet strike fighters, as well as the A-7 Corsair II jets and even A-4 Skyhawk light bombers were almost bigger than life to me then. Sitting for a beer with these guys, and listening to their stories, is something I dearly loved to do.

Now it looks like over the next decade or so that a lot of pilots and aircraft crew could be out of a job.

I can understand how UAVs represent something that particularly fighter and bomber pilots have long resisted -- even after they are long out of the cockpits and into senior command jobs. The lore and romance of the white silk scarf on combat pilots will be difficult see fade away.

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