RAF crews begin Wedgetail training

An E-7A Wedgetail conducts aerial refuelling during a mission on Operation Okra. Cpl Brenton Kwaterski/Royal Australian Air Force

RAF airborne warning and control crew members arrived at RAAF Base Williamtown, north of Sydney, in July 2018, to begin conversion to the RAAF’s Boeing E-7A Wedgetail Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) aircraft.

The RAF is seeking to replace its airborne warning and control system (AWACS) capability currently filled by the E-3D Sentry AEW1 platform. The Sentry leet is based at RAF Waddington and operated by 8 and 54 Squadrons.

Although the United Kingdom has not formally announced a decision in favour of the 737-based AEW&C capability, the arrival of RAF crews in Australia is a clear indication that the aircraft is of signiicant interest to the RAF.

The RAF crewmembers comprise (in RAAF parlance) a pilot, a surveillance and control oicer (SCO) and an electronic support measures operator (ESMO). The three are understood to have begun their conversion to Wedgetail with the RAAF’s 2 Squadron at Williamtown in mid-July. At least two US Air Force Sentry crewmembers are also undergoing Wedgetail training at the base. Speaking during the Wedgetail’s recent deployment to RAAF Base Tindal in the Northern Territory for Exercise Pitch Black 2018, 2 Squadron Senior Engineer (SENGO) Squadron Leader Shane Taylor said: “2 Squadron has just taken on board some trainees, both from the UK and the United States, both pilots and mission crew.”

Sqn Ldr Taylor added: “They will be progressing through the training continuum over the coming twelve to eighteen months and certainly other countries are expressing an interest in this capability.”

In July, the RAAF sent a Wedgetail to the UK to participate in the RAF’s 100th birthday celebrations during the Royal International Air Tattoo at RAF Fairford. After the show, the aircraft visited Waddington and demonstrated its capabilities to the RAF AWACS crews.

Australia has six Wedgetails in service and the similar 737 AEW&C platform is also operated by the Republic of Korea Air Force (RoKAF) and the Türk Hava Kuvvetleri (Turkish Air Force).

A single Wedgetail rotation has been continuously deployed to the Middle East since September 2014, as part of Operation Okra, the Australian government’s contribution to combat operations against Islamic State forces in Iraq and Syria. The aircraft has established a reputation for serviceability and performance during operations in the Middle East Area of Operations (MEAO) and senior RAAF commanders have referred to the Wedgetail as the ‘AEW&C of choice’.

During the recent Pitch Black exercise, Sqn Ldr Taylor said: “By some margin the Wedgetail is a world-leading airborne early warning and control platform [and] it is absolutely demonstrating that it provides exceptional value for money.”

He added: “It is about providing the best situational awareness that you can in a high-end, ifthgeneration waright.”

Other western contenders for the RAF Sentry replacement programme include Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI), with a solution based on the commercial Gulfstream 550 platform; and Saab, which is keen to ofer its Bombardier 6000-based GlobalEye aircraft. The G550AEW is operated by Israel, Italy and Singapore, and Saab has is supplying its GlobalEye system to the United Arab Emirates.

Nigel Pittaway