An airborne early warning and control system is an airborne radar picket system designed to detect aircraft, ships and vehicles at long ranges and perform control and command of the battle space in an air engagement by directing fighter and attack aircraft strikes. AEW&C units are also used to carry out surveillance, including over ground targets and frequently perform C2BM functions similar to an Air Traffic Controller given military command over other forces. When used at altitude, the radar on the aircraft allows the operators to detect and track targets and distinguish between friendly and hostile aircraft much farther away than a similar ground based radar. Like a ground based radar, it can be detected by opposing forces, but because of its mobility, it is much less vulnerable to counter-attack.
AEW&C aircraft are used for both defensive and offensive air operations, and are to the NATO and US forces trained or integrated Air Forces what the Command Information Center is to a US Navy warship, plus a highly mobile and powerful radar platform.