NATO's airborne warning and control system planes, or AWACS, are providing surveillance at the Euro 2004 soccer tournament in Portugal at Portugal's request.

NATO's airborne warning and control system planes, or AWACS, are providing surveillance at the Euro 2004 soccer tournament in Portugal at Portugal's request. (Photo courtesy of NATO)

As soccer hordes in Portugal get ecstatic, anarchic or off-the-rails crazy for the Euro 2004 soccer championships, an electronic eye scans the skies.

It doesn’t monitor goal attacks by players on the pitch, or even broken-glass attacks by hooligans in the parking lot. Instead, the Airborne Warning and Control System planes, or AWACS, monitor airspace with radar superior to that of ground stations to detect terrorist attacks.

NATO is providing the surveillance at the request of Portugal, one in a series of such missions. The alliance conducted similar flights over Salt Lake City during the 2002 Winter Olympics, and will fly them this summer over Athens, Greece, during the summer games. It flew them over the wedding of Spain’s Crown Prince Felipe in May, and will fly them over the NATO summit next week in Istanbul, Turkey. It also flies them over European Union or other international summits.

The novelty of all this is that instead of snooping for the first signs of a Soviet air armada or missile strikes, AWACS now sniff for hijacked airliners or anything else suspicious — and they’re doing so over large international events rather than traditional military targets or frontiers. NATO is fixed on finding new ways to use traditional technology to fight faceless enemies who hunt civilians.

According to James Appathurai, the NATO spokesman, alliance officials are planning to come up with new guidance on just how to use the AWACS fleet outside of the traditional role of collective defense.

“Fighting terrorism is the order of the day, and all of our military assets are in various stages of trying to come to grips with the new mission,” said Steve Aftergood, an intelligence expert with the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, D.C.

“To some extent, it serves a deterrent purpose by sending a message to terrorist planners that these high-profile targets are not unprotected.”

Aftergood said the ultimate effectiveness of AWACS against terrorism, though, is unproved.

“The truth is we don’t even have a clear notion of the threat,” Aftergood said. “What is the likelihood of an attack from the air? We still don’t have a clear reading on that.”

For its part, the alliance is pledged to provide the air envelope to member states when asked, within reason. One NATO official joked that if someone were to throw a big enough barbecue, AWACS would fly over it, too.

“It’s hard to say [it’s a] trend just yet, but it does say that these kinds of deployments seem to be on the rise,” said Appathurai, the NATO spokesman in Brussels, Belgium.

He said that the alliance aims to be as generous as possible with its fleet of 17 E-3As headquartered in Geilenkirchen, Germany, but that it can’t fly it endlessly or willy-nilly.

“Euro 2004 is certainly a long engagement, and we have to look at how we use these assets,” he said. The tournament began June 12 and continues through July 4.

Though officials are trying to figure out just how to use the AWACS in the new millennium, there is no time line yet to publish the guidance. “There’s no urgency,” Appathurai said. “These assets are of course available.”

It’s available because the AWACS fleet is unique in that the alliance actually owns it, as opposed to borrowing it from member states. The NATO planes flew to Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., in 2001 to conduct counterterrorism missions and free up American aircraft for operations in Afghanistan — sort of an inaugural AWACS flight into the war on terror.

The system reportedly has a radar range of more than 200 miles for low-flying aircraft and even greater range for targets at higher altitudes.

Whatever its strategic capabilities, the idea of such precautions is welcomed by those organizing, and participating in, large public events.

“It’s something that gives our athletes great peace of mind,” said Darryl Seibel, spokesman for the U.S. Olympic Committee in Colorado Springs, Colo.

“When you look at Athens, we feel it’s the most comprehensive security plan that we’ve ever seen. The organizing committee is going to unprecedented lengths to make sure the games are safe and secure for athletes from every nation.”

Seibel said that in addition to the aerial support, some 70,000 security personnel will guard the games — about seven guards per athlete.

While welcomed by organizers, militaristic security may be less appealing to the general public.

“It could work both ways,” said Aftergood, the intelligence expert. “It could project preparedness and strength, or it could provoke anxiety. Do I really want to go to a sporting event where advanced military defense are required? Maybe not.”

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