E-3 Sentry Jets Elephant Walk During Dangerous Weather Escape Drill

‘Elephant walks,’ airpower exercises designed to demonstrate the readiness of large numbers of aircraft in anticipation of a major contingency, are always a treat to see. A recent elephant walk involving U.S. Air Force E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning And Control System, or AWACS jets, was especially unique, and quite topical.

Photos released by the Department of Defense show seven E-3G Sentry aircraft (the latest E-3 variant) assigned to the 552nd Air Control Wing performing an elephant walk, which took place on March 21. Lined up on Runway 18 at Tinker Air Force Base (AFB), Oklahoma, the E-3s performed a “weather flush exercise” during the elephant walk.

E-3G Sentry aircraft assigned to the 552nd Air Control Wing await clearance to depart during a weather flush exercise at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, March 21, 2023. U.S. Air Force photo by Paul Shirk

As the official image captions state, this was designed to give “air crews, support squadrons and maintainers a chance to practice generating the E-3G Sentry to evacuate the area quickly in the event of a weather emergency.” That type of emergency operation occurs more frequently than many may realize, especially in tornado and hurricane-prone parts of the country. The damage that can be caused by storms to aircraft, even those in hangars, can be catastrophic and can have long-term strategic repercussions.

In the photos, we see the E-3G Sentry aircraft lined up from different angles as they taxi down the runway. Although only seven E-3s were involved in the elephant walk, 552nd Air Control Wing operates 27 E-3 AWACS aircraft, according to its website. The USAF operates a total of 31 E-3 Sentry aircraft.

U.S. Air Force photo by Paul Shirk

“It’s good practice,” Col. Wayne “Jack” Frost, Operations Group commander of the 552nd Air Control Wing explained to Oklahoma’s News 4 regarding the weather flush exercise. “Like any exercise, you learn something along the way … We’re going to learn some things that are going to make us better.”

The E-3 Sentry, which first entered service with the USAF in the 1970s, uses the now nearly antique Boeing 707 airframe with TF33 engines. Crew members are able to perform target detection, tracking, and surveillance via the aircraft’s various passive sensor and radar capabilities, and provide early warning and control to allied aircraft. Most notably, E-3 Sentry aircraft feature a large rotating radar in a dome above the fuselage, which has a range of more than 250 miles (375.5 kilometers). The latest E-3 version, the E-3G that features Block 40/45 upgrades, made its combat debut in 2015.

U.S. Air Force photo by Paul Shirk

Tinker AFB’s geriatric E-3s remain heavily tasked for their surveillance capabilities, demonstrated recently during the shootdown of an unidentified object over Lake Huron in February. Yet the aircraft has been struggling with poor mission-capable rates and the looming obsolescence of many of its components. Huge demand for their services around the globe, including a persistent presence in Alaska and Asia, has taxed the aging fleet even further.

As The War Zone noted earlier this month, somewhere in the region of 40 percent and 45 percent of the USAF’s E-3 fleet was unable to fly in 2021. The latest E-3G variant saw its mission-capability rate fall from 70.7 percent in 2020 to 60.7 percent in 2021, while the E-3B’s mission-capability rate fell from 65.8 percent to 55.8 percent during that same time period.

The U.S. Air Force’s 2024 Fiscal Year (FY24) budget request plans to divest two E-3 Sentry aircraft. The Air Force had aimed to speed up E-3 divestments in the 2023 Fiscal Year budget request, but ultimately failed to secure Congressional approval. The USAF wants to try and cut two airframes this year. Moreover, Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall has also recently indicated publicly that the current E-3 fleet’s readiness levels, combined with its increasingly out-of-date capabilities, limits the utility of the aircraft. He has suggested that refocusing resources on a smaller fleet of E-3 aircraft in the near future could be a tool to improve E-3 readiness. This would likely involve cannibalizing retired airframes.

U.S. Air Force photo by Paul Shirk

At the same time, however, the service has allotted $254 million dollars in its FY24 budget request to support the development and acquisition of a U.S.-specific version of the E-7 Wedgetail radar plane, which will replace the USAF’s E-3 aircraft. This funding will go primarily toward the purchase of a second E-7 prototype. You can read The War Zone’s latest feature on the E-7 here.

The USAF had already issued a contract to Boeing in February to begin development on two new U.S.-specific versions of the E-7, valued up to $1.2 billion. Production on the E-7s is slated to begin in 2025, while the first aircraft is scheduled to be ready for operational service in 2027. As well as these first two E-7s, the USAF plans to purchase 24 examples of the aircraft by 2032.

U.S. Air Force photo by Paul Shirk

With that said, Tinker AFB’s E-3s will still soldier on for years to come, and they still know how to put on a show. Enjoy the pictures!    

Contact the author: oliver@thewarzone.com

Oliver Parken Avatar

Oliver Parken

Associate Editor

Oli’s background is in the cultural and military history of twentieth-century Britain. Before joining The War Zone team in early in 2022, he was Assistant Lecturer at the University of Kent’s Center for the History of War, Media and Society in the U.K., where he completed his PhD in 2021. Alongside his contributions to The War Zone‘s military history catalog, he also covers contemporary topics and breaking news.