The UK’s purchase of the Boeing E-7A Wedgetail airborne early warning and control aircraft has already caused controversy. Jon Lake looks at the story so far.
Looking at the UK Wedgetail deal, some criticise what they claim is yet another non-competed contract award to Boeing (following similar acquisitions of AH-64E Apache helicopters, P-8A Poseidons and 16 extra CH-47 Chinooks) in which no proper evaluation of alternatives was undertaken. But others welcome a prompt, streamlined acquisition of what they see as the best available airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) platform to address an urgent requirement. The truth probably lies somewhere between these two opposing viewpoints.
The RAF’s existing fleet of Boeing E-3D Sentry AEW1 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft is in a parlous state.
The UK acquired seven E-3Ds following the failure of the indigenous Nimrod AEW3 programme. The type entered service from July 1991 and all seven aircraft had been delivered by early 1992. The E-3D has given useful service in the Balkans, in operations in the Middle East and in its primary UK air defence role. The aircraft has an ongoing commitment to Operation Shader where the E-3D is used to provide ‘big picture’ situational awareness for coalition aircraft, to help to deconflict airspace, and to provide early warning of Russian and Syrian regime aircraft movements that are outside coalition control.
End of the line for Sentry
The 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) called for the Sentry AEW1 to be retained in service until 2035, but the British Ministry of Defence has signally failed to invest in the E-3D in more recent times and, as a result, the fleet has fallen progressively further behind the E-3s operated by the USAF, NATO and France, and it subsequently became clear that replacing these aircraft might be a more cost-ef ective option than upgrading them. A figure of £2bn has been mooted as the likely cost of the upgrade that would be required to keep the E-3Ds viable until their planned retirement date.
The original plan was to upgrade the aircraft to the Block 40/45 standard, keeping them aligned with the global fleet, under the so-called Project Eagle programme. This ef ort was launched in 2005, but was abandoned in 2009 due to defence budget cuts. The cancellation of Eagle left the UK on its own with a unique fleet, with none of the economies of scale of ered by keeping the aircraft aligned with US/NATO standards. The situation was exacerbated by cuts to the Integrated Project Team within Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S), a switch of support contractors and the adoption of single-track maintenance, which left the UK E-3D far behind the global fleet in terms of airworthiness, technology and sustainment.
By 2019, only a single E-3D was fully operational, though the aim is to have four aircraft available. In 2010, a set of aircraft steps blew into ZH105 and punctured the skin, and the decision was taken to scrap the aircraft and recover spares, rather than to fix what was relatively minor damage and return the aircraft to service. The hulk of ZH105 was subsequently used for non-destructive airframe testing and for evacuation training.
The decision has now been taken to reduce the remaining E-3D fleet from six to four aircraft by removing two long-term unserviceable aircraft from the active fleet. This is intended to allow the Sentry Force to focus its resources on the remaining four aircraft, hopefully providing better availability to support the force’s commitments to the NATO Airborne Early Warning and Control Force (NAEW&C Force) and NATO Assurance Measures missions. ZH102 and ZH107 were reportedly grounded last year, leaving ZH101, 103, 104 and 106.
Even in modernised form, with a new support solution that guaranteed better availability, many believe that the E-3D no longer represents an adequate airborne battle management and surveillance system, let alone a cutting-edge one, with proliferating long-range missile systems and emerging non-Western low-observable fighters forcing large, high-value assets to operate further back from contested airspace, and increasingly unable to ‘look’ far into the battlespace. The mechanically scanned AN/APY-1/2 radar array used by all E-3 variants has limited capability against low-observable threats, and against very slow-moving and hypersonic threats, and it has long been clear that a more modern, active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar would of er significant advantages.
The MOD’s Modernising Defence Programme (MDP) review considered the issue of replacing the E-3D’s capability, examining all options from a simple upgrade to a number of replacement options. The ministry said it needed the new AEW&C capability in service by 2022.
It was decided at an early stage that the capability would be based on a manned platform – these have proved to be easier and more flexible to operate, especially when working near civilian air traf ic. Vitally, relying on satellites for bandwidth can lead to a reduced update rate, which could make it even more dif icult to deal with an evading target scenario in a heavy electronic warfare environment.
When the United Arab Emirates decided to acquire a new generation AEW&C aircraft, it evaluated the Boeing 737 AEW&C, the Northrop Grumman E-2D Advanced Hawkeye and Saab’s GlobalEye, based on the Bombardier Global 6000 business jet, eventually selecting the Saab proposal.
The UK requirement emphasised command and control (C2), making the E-2D and the GlobalEye favoured by the Emiratis too small, and carrying too few operators. This left the 737 AEW&C (known as the E-7A Wedgetail in Australian service) as the only ‘of -the-shelf’ option. Although Boeing has delivered six 737 AEW&C aircraft to Australia, four to South Korea and four to Turkey, it had not delivered one since 2015, when Turkey’s final aircraft was handed over, while the Northrop Grumman radar has been out of production since 2013.
The 737 AEW&C is based on a hybrid Boeing 737 Next Generation airframe, broadly similar to the 737-700ER or 737-700IGW, but with heavy-duty landing gear from the 737-800, and equipped with three auxiliary fuel tanks. The RAF aircraft will be to the same standard as the RAAF Wedgetails, with ten mission crew consoles (four to starboard and six on the port side) rather than the eight operator consoles on the Turkish/South Korean aircraft.
The L-band (1 to 2GHz) Northrop Grumman Multi-role Electronically Scanned Array (MESA) radar incorporates an integrated identification friend or foe (IFF) system and uses a 24ft-long (7.3m) by 8ft 10in-high (2.7m) side-emitting electronic manifold array in the dorsal ‘fin’ providing 120° coverage to port and starboard. This ‘fin’ supports a so-called ‘top hat’ array (like a broad flat plank) which provides 60° coverage fore and aft.
Compared with the rotating M-scan radar antenna of a traditional AWACS, the Wedgetail’s AESA allows output to be tailored, using the right amount of power to configure the radar ‘reach’ according to mission requirements. The AESA radar can achieve simultaneous tracking of airborne and maritime targets in near real-time by transmitting multiple beams at the same time, using different waveforms over a wider frequency range. MESA is capable of simultaneously tracking 180 targets and conducting 24 intercepts.
The integrated radar and IFF will reach much further into the battlespace than other systems, providing greater situational awareness. The radar is claimed to have a maximum range of more than 373 miles (600km) in the look-up mode. Against fighter-sized targets, operating in the look-down mode, the maximum range is claimed to be in excess of 230 miles (370km), while maritime frigate-sized targets can be tracked at more than 149 miles (240km). The Wedgetail can cover four million square kilometres during a single ten-hour mission.
The radar does have ground mapping and moving target indication capabilities, and the E-7A has undertaken the ground surveillance role over Iraq when RAF Sentinels have been unavailable. The radar antenna also gives an electronic intelligence (ELINT) capability, with a claimed maximum range of over 528 miles (850km) from an altitude of 29,528ft (9,000m).
The MESA radar is augmented by the BAE Systems Australia ALR-2001 Odyssey electronic support measures (ESM) system, a derivative of the Israeli Elta EL/M-8300 series. ESM antennas for the microwave bands are mounted under the nose, tail and wingtip radomes, while lower bands are served by a ventral antenna ‘farm’ The aircraft is also fitted with an AN/AAR-54 missile approach warning system, an LWS-20 laser warning system, and there’s provision for an AN/AAQ-24 Directional Infrared Countermeasure (DIRCM) system under the tail ESM antenna fairing.
Saab and Airbus did team up to offer a European-made system pairing the Airbus A330 with Saab’s Erieye ER radar. The proposal was based on the use of some of the fleet of A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) Voyager aircraft owned by the Air Tanker consortium and used by the RAF for inflight refuelling and transport duties as part of a long-term private finance initiative deal. The Air Tanker fleet includes some five ‘surge capacity’ aircraft which could be converted for AEW&C duties. These could be subsequently replaced in the core tanker fleet by new A330 MRTTs fitted with a boom refuelling capability. To avoid ‘masking’ by the wing, the Airbus-based Erieye featured two radar antennas mounted in tandem above the fuselage.
When it became clear that the MOD was intending to procure the E-7 Wedgetail without an open competition, the cross-party Parliamentary Defence Committee expressed grave concerns, noting that alternative aircraft platforms existed and should be considered, and that the contract should not simply be awarded to Boeing on a sole-source basis. In July 2018, the committee chairman Julian Lewis wrote an open letter to the then Minister for Defence Procurement Guto Bebb, saying that there was “convincing evidence of at least one credible alternative to Wedgetail” and that there was “absolutely no reason [why], yet again, to dispense with open competition”.
Lewis wrote that it would be “particularly inappropriate for a competition to be foregone in favour of Boeing following their involvement in the imposition of punitive tariffs against Bombardier [in 2017]” which had allegedly damaged Bombardier’s manufacturing operation in Northern Ireland.
In September 2018, the MOD announced that it planned to acquire the Wedgetail without a competition, subject to reaching a satisfactory agreement with Boeing on price. The new Minister for Defence Procurement Stuart Andrew wrote to Lewis and the Defence Committee justifying this stance. Andrew said the MOD had made up its mind to procure the Wedgetail at the start of that year and that it had spent the intervening months reviewing the proposal and obtaining the approval of MOD and Treasury ministers before announcing the decision.
Andrew claimed there were “fundamental issues with the Airbus/Saab solution that, in our view, make it incompatible with the pressing need” detailing what he said were cost and integration issues. In October 2018, a number of senior officers gave evidence to the Defence Committee, supporting the Wedgetail decision and dismissing the notion that there was any other viable alternative.
The then Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff (Financial and Military Capability), Lt Gen Mark Poffley, said: “We have analysed a series of options, including one from Airbus with Saab, and that has led us to the conclusion that we ought to pursue the implications of going single-source.” Poffley explained that the objection to the Airbus solution was based on “their ability to deliver in the timeframes and to mitigate many of the risks we believe are inside that solution. We think we therefore need to pursue single-source”.
Assistant Chief of Defence Staff (Capability and Force Design) AVM Richard Knighton, called the Airbus-based solution a “paper aircraft” and claimed that the system had particular integration challenges relating to the aircraft’s wing size: “It’s going to require complex integration to ensure you can unmask the radar from the wings; none of this has been done before. The risk isn’t in the aircraft but the integration,” he claimed.
Andrew Walton, head of Saab UK, rejected suggestions that the company’s proposal presented technological or programmatic risk. The Erieye radar system has already been supplied to eight air forces, integrated on five different aircraft platforms, and Walton claimed that the proposed A330 AEW&C aircraft would represent the “lowest risk” of any platform on which the Erieye radar has been integrated.
“Detailed analysis indicates that it would take less than 36 months to integrate the first A330 Erieye system and subsequent platforms would follow at nine-month intervals,” Walton stated, adding that while the first conversion would be undertaken at Airbus facilities in Madrid, the remainder of the aircraft would be modified in the UK.
In his letter to the committee, Walton said that Saab could not “support the assertion Erieye’s performance has been analysed” He pointed out that Saab had got permission from the Swedish government to share classified data on Erieye, but that this offer had not been taken up. “Without examining classified data, it is impossible to understand and judge the performance of the system.” Walton noted.
Walton said Saab had expected that MOD procurement methods and decisions would reflect “the government’s commitment to fair and transparent free-market competition” and said the company had been “concerned by the lack of competition and the lack of dialogue and response from the MOD”.
Julian Lewis wrote to the then Minister for Defence Procurement Stuart Andrew asking how the MOD had decided to sole-source the Wedgetail when it lacked detailed information on the A330/Erieye combination, and asked why Saab’s offer to supply classified technical information relating to the Erieye had been declined by the RAF and the DE&S organisation.
In his reply, Andrew wrote: “In considering the E-7 Wedgetail, there was such a clear distinction over any other options it was felt that running any type of competition would unnecessarily consume MOD and industry resources, whilst the gap between UK capability and the evolving threat would be expected to widen.”
On March 22 last year, then Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson announced that the UK had committed to a £1.5bn (US$1.96bn) order for five Boeing 737-700-based E-7As. Williamson said: “The Wedgetail is the stand-out performer in our pursuit of a new battlespace surveillance aircraft, and has already proved itself in Iraq and Syria with the Royal Australian Air Force.”
The then Chief of the Air Staff, ACM Sir Stephen Hillier commented: “This world-class capability, already proven with our Royal Australian Air Force partners, will significantly enhance our ability to deliver decisive airborne command and control and builds on the reputation of our E-3D Sentry Force. Along with Defence’s investment in other cutting-edge aircraft, the E-7 will form a core element of the Next Generation Air Force, able to overcome both current and future complex threats.”
Local industrial support
The five RAF E-7A aircraft will be converted by Marshall Aerospace and Defence Group in Cambridge. Boeing has secured three production slots on its Seattle production line in 2021 and 2022 for three aircraft and has sourced two second-hand Boeing 737NGs to form the basis of the other two aircraft.
In July last year, Marshall Aerospace signed a risk-reduction contract with Boeing to commence preparatory work on the UK’s E-7 Wedgetail programme. This contract will ensure that Marshalls is ready to begin the complex aircraft modification process in Cambridge in early 2021, leading to delivery of the first aircraft in 2023, slightly later than had originally been planned. Work on each aircraft is expected to take around 24 months and the final example is due to be completed in 2026.
Under ‘Five Eyes’
For Australia, the innovative radar was reportedly the cause of numerous development problems and of a four-year delay against the originally planned schedule, as well as a shortfall in capability compared with the initial specification. As a result, the Wedgetail featured on the Australian Department of Defence’s list of Projects of Concern for some time, but the first two aircraft were formally delivered on November 26, 2009 and were accepted by the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) on May 5, 2010. The Wedgetail aircraft achieved initial operational capability in November 2012 and flew a first sortie over Iraq supporting coalition forces conducting air strikes against the so-called Islamic State on October 1, 2014. The type achieved final operational capability in May 2015 and in November that year an RAAF E-7A performed the longest Australian command and control mission in a war zone by completing a 17hr, 6min combat mission, requiring two air-to-air refuellings.
The RAAF’s AUS$583m, three-stage, six-year E-7A Wedgetail modernisation programme includes a Phase 5A compliance and interoperability upgrade and a Phase 6 capability enhancement and will eventually see the integration of new and more advanced combat identification sensors, tactical data links and communication/encryption systems. Boeing delivered the first release of upgrades to its six aircraft in early 2018 and work is due to be completed by mid-2022.
The RAF has reportedly had personnel embedded on the RAAF’s No 2 Squadron at RAAF Williamtown, operator of the Australian Wedgetails, and RAF aircrew have flown on missions over Iraq. Harriet Baldwin MP, the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State and Minister for Defence Procurement, flew in an RAAF E-7 Wedgetail in November 2018.
Air Cdre Richard Barrow, the senior responsible owner for the RAF’s acquisitions of the Boeing P-8 and E-7, described the project as “a really pacey programme” explaining: “We couldn’t hang around – it’s not a capability gap you can afford to take.”
The UK plans to operate its E-7As in close conjunction with its ally and ‘Five Eyes’ partner Australia, especially when it comes to future upgrades. Barrow said the RAF will “stay in lock-step” with the RAAF. “It’s a lot smarter if we work together with them and effectively co-fund stuff going forward,” he said.