NAS PATUXENT RIVER, Maryland –
The E-2C Hawkeye has been a linchpin in the Navy’s command and control capabilities for more than 50 years. The all-weather, carrier-based tactical airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft recently celebrated its 50th anniversary of flight. Although the E-2C is scheduled for sundown in 2026, the aircraft’s impressive legacy of capability and sustainability will live on.
The E-2C has garnered a proud and enthusiastic community in its 50-plus years. Since entering Navy service with Airborne Early Warning Squadron (VAW) 123 at Naval Air Station (NAS) Norfolk, Virginia, in November 1973, the aircraft has been flown and meticulously maintained by thousands of Sailors. It has been used for sea and land-based military operations, search and rescue missions, drug interdiction, humanitarian efforts and disaster relief. It has even been used as Air Traffic Control (ATC) in emergencies when land-based ATC was unavailable.
The longest operational variant of the E-2, the E-2C has surely made an impression on the Navy and nation as a whole in its 50 years of honorable service. The sensors and radar have remained unmatched and the Fleet has been in great hands while the “digital quarterback of the sky” has been flying.
“The E-2C has had a long a long operational run in the Navy and a lot has changed,” said Cmdr. Nolan “Jiggy” King, E-2/C-2 military class desk with the E-2/C-2 Command & Control Systems Program Office, and E-2C pilot. “The E-2Cs are a data fusion engine, taking information from its sensors, from other ships and aircraft sensors through data links, and incorporating real time intelligence information through other communication paths. We are able to bring all this together to get a much clearer picture of the battlespace you couldn’t dream about 20 or 30 years ago.”
Since its inception in 1971, the E-2C has continued to incorporate improvements to keep pace with technology advancements and the ever-changing operational environment. The aircraft had five major upgrades throughout the years before its current variant, the Hawkeye 2000 (HE2K), began production. As the E-2A and E-2B were found to be unreliable platforms, two E-2A test aircraft were modified as prototypes of the E-2C, with the first flying on Jan. 20, 1971. Trials proved satisfactory and the E-2C was ordered into production, with the first production aircraft performing its initial flight on Sept. 23, 1972. The original E-2C, known as Group 0, consisted of 55 aircraft with the first aircraft becoming operational in 1973. Additional variants include Group I, Group II and Group II Plus, each incorporating new and improved systems including radar and mission computers.
The aircraft has undergone several upgrades to its active and passive sensors, engines and propellers. The HE2K, with its new mission computer, improved radar displays and Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC), combined with the shipboard Aegis weapon system, formed the cornerstone of sea based Theater Air Missile Defense (TAMD). HE2K transitioned to the sole E-2C variant in sustainment in March 2021.
“The fact that it is a twin-engine prop makes a lot of sense,” said Capt. Gregory “Cheese” Machi, in service deputy program manager, and E-2C pilot. “It is designed for an over-the-horizon blue water long-endurance surveillance mission and persistence to keep the radar on station for as long as possible. Prop-driven aircraft give you that capability.”
E-2C Hawkeyes were on the scene for several global conflicts. They provided airborne command and control for successful air operations as part of Operation Desert Storm, and later in the 1990s, they supported Operations Northern and Southern Watch over Iraq. E-2s also supported NATO operations over the former Republic of Yugoslavia, including Operation Deny Flight.
In response to the events of Sept. 11, 2001, E-2C aircraft launched in support of homeland defense operations. Their missions included airborne surveillance, ground communication relay and track management along the East Coast of the United States.
Machi recalled an instance on his last deployment where the E-2C’s capabilities led to mission success, particularly due to the age of the aircraft’s onboard equipment.
“We were in Carrier Air Group (CAG) 8, flying E-2C Group II Plus aircraft and deployed in the Mediterranean, supporting the war in Syria. The E-2s we were flying had legacy systems on board designed to fight Russian Cold War-era aircraft that were and are now highly proliferating in countries like Syria,” Machi said.
King said E-2 crews are trained in such a way that they are always ready to perform multi-missions, and described one instance where the versatility of the crew and aircraft came into play.
“We were out doing a pilot training mission at an airfield up in Northern Virginia, and while doing landing practices, we heard a call come over the radio that there was an aircraft down off the coast,” King said. “We always brief for search and rescue contingencies even if we’re not doing a full mission. We assessed that we were in a place that we could cancel the mission we were on and go and assist the Coast Guard and the Navy in performing on scene commander duties. We were briefed, we were ready to go even with a reduced crew and not having planned to do it. We were able to make the initial location and vector in air and surface search assets and provide that essential command control until other dedicated assets were able to launch and get out to the scene.”
These instances provide only a glimpse of the E-2’s functionality in global and domestic affairs. Several international partners including Egypt, France, Israel, Japan, Mexico, Singapore and Taiwan have flown the E-2C. These aircraft sales solidified key foreign relationships, enhancing international security and interoperability and ultimately cemented the E-2’s legacy as the most capable command & control platform in the world.
Even as the HE2K was being delivered to the Fleet and international partners, the U.S. Navy was looking toward the next generation of command and control. The result is the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye (AHE). Reaching initial operational capability (IOC) in 2014, the E-2D features a state-of-the-art radar with a two-generation leap in capability and upgraded aircraft systems that improve supportability and increase readiness. The E-2D also now features aerial refueling capabilities, doubling on station time allowing for extended range from the carrier, increased persistence and operational flexibility. Compared to the E-2C, the E-2D greatly enhances operational capability in overland and littoral, in addition to open ocean environments. Japan and France have both purchased the E-2D AHE.
“Just as the E-2C has remained a reliable aircraft for the last 50 years, we anticipate flying the E-2D into the 2040s and beyond,” said Capt. Pete Arrobio, program manager.
“The E-2’s command and control aspects are [the enduring part of its legacy],” Machi said. “It helps us fight like a team and the E-2 is a big part of that team; that’s a good reason why the U.S. Navy is so highly capable. When you look back at the last 50 years in the history of carrier aviation, what is the only plane that is still operating from the aircraft carrier? It’s basically the E-2. It is still flying and it’ll continue to fly for probably another 30 years.”
King said some of the initiatives that began with the E-2C, such as improvements in satellite communications and the E-2C’s ability to “figure out ships names, where they’re going and what they’re carrying” is now standard aboard the E-2D.
“The use of automatic identification systems was a brand new initiative with the E-2Cs and is now something that most operational commanders don’t want to live without,” he said.
Currently, VAW-123 and VAW-116 are the only squadrons still operating the E-2C Hawkeye and are scheduled for transition to the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye.
The Navy has delivered 55 E-2Ds to date of the planned 78. The remaining aircraft are scheduled to be off the production line by 2026.
In the meantime, the E-2/C-2 Airborne Command & Control Systems Program Office says it is focused on hitting and sustaining Mission Capable Aircraft Required (MCAR) and Fully Mission Capable Aircraft Required (FMCAR) goals for the E-2D. These objectives keep the aircraft operational and prepared for the fight tonight. They are also looking toward the future and their advanced development program is at work to ensure the warfighter is equipped against the threats of tomorrow.
“We have begun discussions on what will replace the E-2D. Next generation command and control is grass roots right now, but we will need a manned command and control aircraft to support the air wing of the distant future…2040s and beyond. We’re starting to pull that string,” Arrobio said.
“I think the way our community is, since we are transitioning from E-2Cs to the Ds, a lot of that knowledge is naturally going to proliferate itself to the new platform,” Machi said. “We’re not standing up a brand new community of E-2D’s, we are transitioning E-2C squadrons with all the baseline knowledge and knowhow. I think the way our community is, since we are transitioning from E-2Cs to the Ds, a lot of that knowledge is naturally going to proliferate itself to the new platform,” Machi said. “I think all the hard lessons of how we do things and why we do things a certain way are going to move naturally over to the E-2D.”
Carolyn Bauer is a communications specialist with the E-2/C-2 Airborne Command & Control Systems Program Office. Rob Perry is an editor and writer with Naval Aviation News.