An E-2D Hawkeye over Naval Station Norfolk on March 20, 2014.

The E-2D Advanced Hawkeye is the US Navy’s newest airborne early warning and control aircraft.
It took its first flight on August 3, 2007 and was delivered to the Navy in 2010.
The E-2D is the Navy’s eye in the sky, guiding friends and tracking foes from hundreds of miles away.

On August 3, the US Navy’s “digital quarterback,” the Northrop Grumman E-2D Advanced Hawkeye, celebrated the 15th anniversary of its first flight.

The E-2D is the newest variant of the E-2 airborne early warning and control aircraft. In service since 1964, it is a considerable improvement over its predecessors.

It is one of the Navy’s greatest force multipliers — an eye in the sky that can spot everything and anything within hundreds of miles and guide other aircraft and ships into battle.

Like its predecessors, it is an essential part of the Navy’s aviation force and a vital component of any carrier air wing — so much so that it is still being upgraded to ensure a longer service life.

Airborne early warning and control

An E-2A Hawkeye, left, and a E-1B Tracer near Naval Air Station Norfolk, Virginia, in 1970.

The mission of any airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft is to detect and track enemy aircraft, ships, missiles, and vehicles from far away in order to keep friendly units appraised of the threats they face in real-time.

AEW&C aircraft also provide command and control, acting as a communications hub to relay data, intelligence, orders, and communications between friendly units and commanders.

The US Navy’s first purpose-built airborne early warning aircraft was the E-1 Tracer, built by Grumman — the predecessor to Northrop Grumman — in 1956. The E-1 was based on the C-1 Trader, a carrier-based cargo plane derived from the S-2 Tracker, a carrier-based anti-submarine-warfare aircraft.

US Navy officers conduct airborne early warning and strike group coordination on an E-2C, November 11, 2008.

Instantly recognizable because of the large, aerofoil-shaped radar dome mounted on its roof, the E-1 saw extensive service in the early years of the Vietnam War, supporting combat air patrols and bombing runs in both North and South Vietnam and warning friendly forces of enemy MiG activity.

As it was an interim aircraft, the E-1 was only in Navy service for six years before the E-2 Hawkeye replaced it in 1964, though the it wasn’t officially taken out of service until 1977.

The E-2 was a considerable upgrade, given its all-weather capability and turboprop engines. It first saw service in Vietnam and quickly gained a reputation as the Navy’s electronic eyes. It quickly became a vital part of the carrier air wing and served in every theater of naval operations.

Advanced Hawkeye

A US Navy E-2D Hawkeye and US Marine Corps F-35s over the South China Sea, April 8, 2019.

There have been several E-2 variants, with the E-2D being the latest and most modern. It was first flown on August 3, 2007 and was delivered to the Navy in 2010.

The E2-D can reach speeds of 300 knots and can fly up to 37,000 feet. Its crew consists of two pilots and three naval flight officers, who man and monitor the electronics on board.

The all-weather AN/APY-9 radar mounted over its fuselage can scan a full 360 degrees, detecting air and surface targets simultaneously and suppressing electronic interference, according to its manufacturer, Lockheed Martin.

The E-2D also has an all-glass cockpit with fully electronic flight instruments, giving pilots greater situational awareness while flying and more precision when using their avionics.

An E-2D approaches the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson in the Philippine Sea, September 25, 2021.

Other upgrades include an advanced Identification Friend or Foe System, a new mission computer and tactical workstations, and modernized communications and data-link suites.

The E-2D’s modern systems allow the naval flight officers on board to coordinate the operations of multiple air and surface strike groups while being far from the action itself.

“For 50 years, the E-2 has done something no other carrier-based aircraft can do, and that’s take a very capable radar system to 25,000 feet, hundreds of miles forward from the carrier, and manage the airspace,” said Rear Adm. Randy Mahr, the E-2 program manager from 2005 to 2008.

E-2Ds are especially important for defending Navy assets, as they can track fast-moving targets like missiles, jets, and drones. E-2Ds are among the first aircraft to take off from a carrier at the start of any operation and are usually the last to land.

An E-2D moves into launch position aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln on July 18, 2019.

Hawkeyes are so important that they continue to receive upgrades, the most notable of which is an aerial refueling probe. Aerial refueling enables E-2Ds to fly as long as eight hours. It has been refueled by a crewed tanker aircraft and by the new MQ-25 Stingray aerial refueling drone.

So far, 55 E-2Ds have been delivered — 10 with an aerial refueling probe — and 23 more have been ordered. The Navy asked Congress to order another eight, for a total inventory of 86 aircraft. The service’s ultimate goal is to have 22 E-2Ds operational at any time, and because of the aircraft’s importance, the Navy hopes to keep it flying well into the 2040s.

The E-2D is also headed overseas. Japan has ordered 13, three of which have been delivered, while France has ordered three, which are expected to be delivered by 2027.

Both countries already operate older E-2 models. France will operate its E-2Ds from its carrier, Charles de Gaulle, while Japan’s E-2Ds will be land-based.

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