It has to be an air traffic controller's nightmare. Planes -- hundreds of them -- zipping back and forth across the sky. Some of them are moving at twice the speed of sound, while others are designed to be invisible.
It is like monitoring all the air traffic at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, as well as those in New York, Chicago and Atlanta combined.
In the Persian Gulf war there are days when as many as 3,000 aircraft are sent out on various missions, and it is not unusual for 600 planes to be in the air at once. Keeping track of all that traffic is the job of a somewhat awkward-looking radar system built by workers at the Westinghouse Electronic System Group near Linthicum and commonly called AWACS.
The main AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) anten
na is housed in a 30-foot rotating dome that is perched atop a military version of the Boeing 707 jetliner, behind the wings about where the middle of the economy-class seatswould be.
As if keeping tab of all the allied aircraft operations wasn't enough, the Westinghouse airborne radar system keeps a sharp eye out for anyIraqi planes that might come up to challenge the attackers and can even monitor ship traffic in the gulf.
While Westinghouse officials are keeping a tight lid on their role in the development of the AWACS out of concern for violating security regulations, the Air Force seems eager to display and promote its technology and recently invited a group of reporters covering the war to go along for a 16-hour mission.
The flying radar has the ability to "look down" from a height of 30,000 feet and detect low-flying planes that usually would not show up on the screens of ground-based radar units.
It guided the missions of practically every allied plane in the war zone, including: F-15s, B-52s, F-111s, A-6s, EA-6Bs, F-16s, F/A-18s, F-14s, GR1 Tornadoes, F-4 Wild Weasels, British Buccaneers, Mirage F-1s and Saudi F-5s, according to pool news reports. The crew also monitored a search-and-rescue mission for an Air Force EF-111-A that had crashed in northern Saudi Arabia.
AWACS has two primary missions in the current Middle East war, says Donald Brannon, a spokesman for Boeing Co.'s Defense and Space Group in Seattle. "Its first mission is to detect and identify any intruding Iraqi aircraft," few of which have been taking to the sky in recent weeks, he says.
"It also has command and control capabilities when it comes to an air war," Mr. Brannon says. "It can't detect land targets, things like tanks and armored personnel carriers, but it can control an
air battle. It can see all planes, where they are going and their direction and speed. It keeps pilots out of the other guy's way."
Lt. Col. Michael Gannon, an Air Force spokesman at the Pentagon, quoted Gen. Charles A. Horner, Air Force commander in Saudia Arabia, as saying that AWACS is important to the war effort.
"Without AWACS we would be flying in the blind. Without AWACS the thousands of sorties we fly every day could not be flown with the kind of order and precision that we've seen" in raids over Iraq and Kuwait, he quoted the general as saying.
Asked how the radar plane tracks the movement of the F-117 Stealth fighter, Colonel Gannon says there are provisions to handle them so "that they don't end up all over the place and running into each other and other planes." But he said that information would be classified.
The exact range of the AWACS radar is also a military secret, but the Air Force and Westinghouse have said in the past that an AWACS flying over Baltimore would monitor every plane in flight from the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina to Hartford, Conn.
The dome rotates once every 10 seconds, offering a 360-degree view of all air traffic for hundreds of miles, an Air Force officer told reporters on the demonstration flight.
Westinghouse has delivered 34 AWACS units to the Air Force, 18 to other NATO countries and five to Saudi Arabia. It is currently making deliveries on seven to Britain and four to France.
The company has said in the past that its AWACS business has amounted to about $1.8 billion in sales and has been one of the biggest programs in the 40-year history of the Linthicum defense complex.
Once the radar domes are built at the local plant, Mr. Brannon says, they are shipped to Seattle, where they are mounted on top of the four-engine jets, filled with other electronic equipment, including computers produced by International Business Machines Corp.
zTC Just when it was beginning to look as if the AWACS production was finally coming to an end, Westinghouse was awarded a $233 million Air Force contract in September 1989 for a major upgrading of the system. The contract calls for the design and development of a new system, and the first flight tests are scheduled for late next year or early 1993.
The original AWACS were designed primarily to detect and track the movements of planes the size of a Soviet bomber called the Bear, but then modified to pick up the much smaller MiG fighters. The upgraded version is expected to be able to track cruise missiles, such as the Tomahawk, that have been launched against targets in Iraq and Kuwait.
"AWACS is proving its worth in the Persian Gulf," says Boeing's Mr. Brannon, "and it's going to be around another 20 years, at least another 20 years."