NATO revealed on November 15 that Boeing’s E-7A Wedgetail has been selected to succeed the alliance’s ageing E-3A Sentry airborne warning and control system (AWACS) fleet, which entered operational service with the organisation in 1982.
Production of six new-build E-7As for the NATO Airborne Early Warning and Control Force (NAEW&CF) – which is headquartered at Geilenkirchen Air Base in Germany – is set to begin in the coming years, with the first Wedgetails expected to be ready for operational duty by 2031. While NATO has confirmed that it will acquire an initial batch of six E-7As, it has not been confirmed if plans exist to order more examples in the future. The NAEW&CF currently operates 14 E-3A Sentry AWACS from Geilenkirchen and several other forward operating locations across Europe.
NATO states that the decision to acquire at least six Wedgetails to replace the ageing Sentry fleet – which has been dubbed as “one of [the organisation’s] biggest-ever capability purchases” – was approved by a consortium of unspecified alliance member states. NATO’s decision to acquire the E-7A does not come as a surprise, given that two NATO member states – the UK and US – have already committed to replacing their own Sentry fleets with the Wedgetail – a capability that was initially pioneered by Boeing Defense, Space & Security and the Royal Australian Air Force, which has operated the type since May 2010. Variants of the E-7A, such as the Boeing 737-7ES Peace Eagle and 737-7ES Peace Eye, are also operated by the Turkish Air Force and Republic of Korea Air Force, respectively.
Commenting on the decision, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said: “Surveillance and control aircraft are crucial for NATO’s collective defence and I welcome allies’ commitment to investing in high-end capabilities. By pooling resources, allies can buy and operate major assets collectively that would be too expensive for individual countries to purchase. This investment in state-of-the-art technology shows the strength of transatlantic defence cooperation as we continue to adapt to a more unstable world.”
NATO’s 14-strong E-3A fleet is a very busy one, with its operations ranging from supporting training exercises with a host of different alliance members to supporting ongoing military operations, such as the coalition fight against ISIS in the Middle East and North Africa, and patrolling NATO’s eastern flank following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. With such a high operational demand, it seems likely that NATO will increase the number of E-7As it orders to succeed the venerable Sentry.