None of that Francis Gary Powers stuff.
This is more for show than blow...
First, I’m guessing the E-3s for this mission will be drawn from the NATO AWACS wing at Gilenkirchen, Germany—total of 18 aircraft. Two are normally deployed to Afghanistan, and they usually keep an aircraft in Norway or Sicily to reduce over-crowding on the ramp, and to give the crews a paid vacation. So, no more than 15 aircraft for the mission, and when you factor in maintenance, other deployments and similar factors, the number of jets is no more than a dozen. Enough for 24 hour ops over Poland, but there are some “limits” when it comes to the NATO E-3 force.
First, the alliance doesn’t want Vlad to shut off the gas pipelines or take any other drastic measures, so the AWACS orbit will be well back of the Polish border. Effective range of the E-3 radar is less than 300 miles—about half the distance from Krakow to Kiev. In other words, Russian air activity in eastern Ukraine and the Crimea will be outside the coverage of a NATO E-3 over Poland.
It’s also worth remembering that NATO AWACS is a composite force, with crews and support personnel from throughout the alliance. Most of them are unionized and they will only work so much. I was an aircrew on a USAF battle management platform during the Balkans operation in the 1990s. We were a one-of-a-kind squadron with only a handful of aircraft and crews, yet we maintained 1-2 orbits a day with less than half the resources of NATO AWACS. And we were overland Bosnia (with only limited data on the whereabouts of Serb SA-6 batterys), while the E-3s stayed over the Adriatic or Hungary.
One Saturday morning, we were on-station over Bosnia when we heard the “overnight” NATO AWACS extended on their orbit. They finally hit bingo fuel and had to return to Germany, with no replacement on the Hungary orbit. That left the British E-3 (Adriatic orbit) to run the show. I flew a couple of missions with those guys on my various rotations and the Brits were very, very good. Most had decades of ground-based radar experience and tours in NATO AWACS, so their controllers were excellent.
We assumed that the “missing” AWACS had some sort of maintenance problem that kept it on the ground, and when it finally arrived on station (about five hours late), nothing was said. We later found out the reason behind their delay; a lot of the NATO crew members from the “less reliable” members of the alliance (i.e., anyone who wasn’t American, British, German or Dutch) had been grumbling about the heavy workload so they staged a “wild cat strike” on the Saturday mission. Most of the mission crew simply didn’t show up, so they patched together a crew of Americans, Brits and Germans to fly the mission.
It’s that kind of mindset that guides most NATO AWACS operations. One of the guys I flew with was a career AWACS type who went to Gilenkirchen after years at Tinker. He reported in to an empty orderly room on a Thursday afternoon. Come back next Monday, said the admin NCO (a Belgian), “we’re busy.”
I’m sure the appearance of NATO AWACS has Putin absolutely terrified.