Final Decision to Acquire Boeing E-7 Wedgetail AEWC Capability Edges Ever Closer.

DefenceSynergia (DS) is grateful to Howard Wheeldon for permission to publish his latest defence commentary which considers the Ministry of Defence (MOD) options in respect of an Airborne Early Warning and Control System (AWACS) replacement. From a DS perspective the MOD UK (Air) failure to properly invest in upgrading its E-3D fleet has led to terminal decline in the ‘D’ variant, not least in its steadily declining interoperability because of the MOD withdrawing from the ‘Project Eagle’ – Block 40/45 open systems architecture – upgrade programme on the grounds of cost. Naturally no one will be held to account even though it may well cost more to replace the capability than it would have done to maintain the ‘D’ incrementally over its operating lifetime. Here is what Howard says:

It has been a very long time coming but, given the statement made by Secretary of State for Defence, Gavin Williamson, it appears that the UK is now edging toward completing a deal whereby the existing Boeing Sentry E-3D capability based at RAF Waddington will be replaced with Boeing E-7 Wedgetail Airborne Early Warning & Control (AEWC) aircraft. Having – unlike the US, French and NATO whose Sentry E3 capability has been upgraded over the years – failed to properly invest in UK based Sentry E-3D AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) capability over the 26 years that it has been in service with the Royal Air Force, a decision to acquire new system as opposed to upgrading the existing fleet of six Sentry E-3D aircraft, as had been previously indicated might occur, is in my view absolutely the right thing to do. I commend the work that is currently going on.

Having an efficient Airborne Early Warning and Control System has been regarded as being essential for the past sixty years and despite huge advances in technology and airborne radar system designed to detect aircraft, ships and vehicles at long range and to perform command and control of battlespace in the air domain in order to direct attack aircraft when danger is spotted remains essential. And, it is hardly a secret that the MOD has been holding discussions with Boeing over the potential purchase of a fleet of E-7 Wedgetail AEWC aircraft or indeed, that linked discussions have been taking place with the Australian government in respect of cooperating in the use of the aircraft.

Even so it is very welcome news from the Secretary of State Defence that the MOD had also undertaken market analysis of all potential AEWC capability available. Following discussions with other potential providers it has been concluded “..that the potential procurement of the E-7 represents the best value for money option for the UK against need, whilst at the same time representing a significant opportunity for increased defence cooperation and collaboration with our key ally Australia”.

With further detailed discussions set to take place before a final decision is announced there is not yet a confirmed investment decision. However, because the E-7 Wedgetail is a proven operational capability which the Secretary of State Williamson rightly confirms “..is the stand-out performer in our pursuit of a new battlespace surveillance aircraft, and has already proved itself in Iraq and Syria” we can, in my view, be pretty sure that this is now an all but done deal. Assuming final agreement is reached between the UK and Boeing, I would expect the formal announcement to be made within whatever emerges out of Modernising Defence Programme (MDP) review process some time during November or early December.

When a deal is confirmed I suggest that the detail could be far more than initially meets the eye. By this I am suggesting the UK defence industry could well be involved on rather more than the MOD’s suggested “modification work and through life support”.

As the highly respected defence journalist Andrew Chuter in Defense News suggested in his recent report on the UK’s plan to acquire E-7 Wedgetail, one company that can be assured of benefiting from any deal is the Cambridge based Marshall Aerospace and Defence Group. They already build auxiliary fuel tanks for the Boeing Poseidon P-8 maritime patrol aircraft which is based on the Boeing 737-800 airframe in service with the US Navy and the UK is acquiring nine P-8 in order to fill the void left by cancellation of Nimrod MRA4. However, the Boeing E-7 Wedgetail AEW aircraft is based on the Boeing 737-700 airframe increased gross weight variant which in turn is based on the airframe of the Boeing Business Jet.

While various strengthening and other work is done during the airframe build, both P-8 Poseidon and E-7 Wedgetail are, after completion of the airframe in special facilities in Seattle, delivered ready for conversion. Six E-7 Wedgetail AEWC aircraft were delivered to the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) between November 2009 and May 2012 and while the project management, including provision of systems engineering and product support was undertaken in a separate contract by Boeing Australia, BAE Systems Australia supplied the electronic support measures, electronic support measures and electronic warfare self-protection systems.

Apart from Australia, E-7 Wedgetail AEWC aircraft have been sold by Boeing to Turkey and South Korea. While Boeing was prime contractor on the Australian E-7 Wedgetail programme it has worked with partners BAE Systems in the US, BAE Systems in Australia and Northrop Grumman. The Advanced Systems Division of BAE Systems North America supplied major elements of the aircraft’s mission avionics, including cockpit tactical mission displays, command and control consoles and mission computers.

So what does E-7 Wedgetail capability comprise?

Lighter and far more efficient in terms of aircraft capability than current Royal Air Force, NATO and French Sentry E-3D/E capability, E-7 Wedgetail has six multi-role /multi-purpose mission consoles with ultra-high resolution flat panel tactical displays installed. These were manufactured at BAE Systems Advanced Defence Technology Systems facility in Greenlawn facility in New York State. The computers use advanced signal processing algorithms in order to analyse, categorise and prioritise data. The data presented to mission crews is on an integrated situation display system console and the open system architecture ensures the systems can be upgraded and extended. The AEW&C Wedgetail aircraft is both compatible and interoperable with the E-3 and 767 AWACS airborne warning and control system aircraft.

The multi-role electronically scanned array radar (MESA) was supplied by Northrop Grumman Electronic Sensors and Systems Division, in Baltimore and Tenix Defence Systems of Adelaide, Australia, supplied components and modules for the radar. MESA provides 360 degree coverage and a range of more than 200nm and the system’s variable track update rates and dedicated tracking modes allow the operator to track allied and hostile high performance aircraft while continuously scanning the area of operations. This scan features an assembly of transmit and receive modules, operating at L-band and sharing three apertures to provide the 360 degree coverage. The radar system provides a high level of operational capability because the system is dynamically structured to match the changing mission requirements. When an operator requires a long range view of a selected sector of the operational area, then the relevant system modes can be selected to initiate the search of that sector at more than twice the nominal uniform surveillance range.

An integrated identification ‘friend or foe’ system (IFF) is combined with the primary radar and uses the same aperture as the primary radar, which avoids target correlation problems. The IFF system has an operational range of more than 300nm. The distinctive ‘top hat’ radome provides a low aerodynamic drag profile while meeting the requirement for fore and aft coverage. Two large strakes are fitted on the underside at the rear section of the fuselage.

Four 737 AEWC aircraft (known as AEW&C Peace Eagle) were ordered from Boeing in 2002 with modification work being undertaken by a combination of Boeing and Tusas Aerospace Industries in Ankara. These aircraft are, I believe, fitted with Airbus Defence Electronics multi-sensor integration software. South Korea ordered four 737 AEWC aircraft in November 2006.The first of what would eventually be six Boeing 737 AEWC aircraft were ordered in 2000 under what was then known as Project Wedgetail.

Of course, at this stage we can only guess, should a deal with Boeing be confirmed, what the overall capability will be. We can however assume that UK capability would be little different from the Australian E-7 Wedgetail and to that end one would imagine that, as has so successfully been achieved by RAF personnel being embedded with US Navy personnel at Jacksonville since 2010, that a similar system would apply with RAF personnel being embedded with the Royal Australian Air Force.

In respect of configuration conversion of E-7 Wedgetail aircraft that the UK might acquire, Marshall Aerospace and Defence would, as Andrew Chuter indicated in his Defense News article, be very well placed. The company could also appear to be very placed for long term work on E-7 Wedgetail as well. The talks with Boeing about raising U.K. content on the aircraft are an effort to head off likely criticism over handing yet another major contract to the U.S. defence giant without holding a competition and with little in the way of work coming to local industry.

With the UK government having ordered Apache attack helicopters and P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft from Boeing over the past two years there will be disappointment that replacing the UK’s small fleet of Sentry E-3D capability has not gone out to competition. However, the point that must be borne in mind here is that E-7 Wedgetail is proven in-service capability and, given the serious funding issues that the MOD currently has and bearing in mind lessons from both Nimrod MRA4 which was cancelled in 2010 and the Nimrod AEW programme which was cancelled in 1986 and that led to the purchase of Boeing Sentry E-3D capability, appetite in the MOD for programme risk is no longer there.

In the meantime Boeing continues to grow its UK workforce which currently stands at 2,300 and is also spending a considerable sum of money at RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland where, as part of an overall £132 million investment for P-8 Poseidon capability support facilities, the base will, when P-8 is fully operational, employ over 2,200 military and civil personnel. Importantly, with Norway having also ordered 5 Boeing Poseidon P-8 Maritime Patrol Aircraft, the UK and Norway have entered into an agreement whereby Norwegian P-8 capability will use also Lossiemouth and both countries will work together in order to provide protection from Russian submarine based nuclear deterrent capability.

I would suggest that Boeing will continue to invest more in the UK over time and, as it has already started to do in Sheffield, produce more components in the UK as well. Having been in the UK for around eighty years now, Boeing has a long history of working within the UK supply chain, with government and military partners to provide critical capability.

Finally, no detail has been given in relation to cost or potential numbers of E-7 Wedgetail aircraft that might be acquired. While I normally dislike speculation my guess on the latter would be five aircraft. In respect of cost which Defense News suggested might be in excess of £2 billion we need to take into account that the original plan to upgrade Sentry E-3D would have most likely cost well above £1 billion. Defense News also reported that any UK E-7 Wedgetail deal would be direct with Boeing and not through the US government Foreign Military Sales (FMS) route.

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS

London – October 3rd 2018