Having selected Boeing’s E-7A to replace its ageing fleet of E-3 Sentry airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft last year, the USAF has awarded the US-based aircraft manufacturing giant a contract to begin working on the first two aircraft using a rapid prototyping acquisition pathway.
This initial contract was awarded to Boeing by the Department of the Air Force (DAF) on February 28, with the USAF stating that the DAF is using the rapid prototyping acquisition pathway to acquire the first two examples of the type and that the value of this early deal will not exceed $1.2bn. At present, the USAF intends to acquire 26 E-7As in total, with plans for serial production to begin in Fiscal Year 2025 (FY25) and the first aircraft to be fielded in operational service by FY27. The USAF adds that it anticipates the procurement of the remaining 24 E-7s by FY32.
Commenting on the deal and the overall E-7A acquisition, Andrew Hunter – Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics – said: “The E-7A will be the [DAF’s] principal airborne sensor for detecting, identifying, tracking and reporting all airborne activity to Joint Force commanders. This contract award is a critical step in ensuring that the [DAF] continues delivering battlespace awareness and management capabilities to US warfighters, allies and partners for the next several decades.
“The E-7A will enable greater airborne battlespace awareness through its precise, real-time air picture and will be able to control and direct individual aircraft under a wide range of environmental and operational conditions,” he added.
A heavily modified variant of the Boeing 737-700 Next-Generation, the E-7A was initially developed to fulfil the requirements of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) – the launch customer for the type (which is dubbed the Wedgetail in RAAF service – but the type has since been acquired by the Republic of Korea Air Force, Turkish Air Force and the Royal Air Force. According to the USAF, the E-7A will “provide advanced airborne moving target indication and battle management, command and control capabilities, and [an] advanced multi-role electronically scanned array radar that enhances airborne battle management and enables long-range kill chains with potential peer adversaries.”
Explaining why the E-7A was selected, Hunter said: “We conducted a thorough analysis of viable industry options to ensure the selected E-3 replacement could meet the specific needs of the US. Until the E-7A is fielded, we will continue to rely on the E-3 AWACS. The rapid prototyping programme will integrate US-based mission systems into the existing airborne platform to meet DAF requirements while simultaneously ensuring interoperability with coalition and allied partners operating the E-7A.”
Having entered operational service in the early 1970s, the USAF’s ageing E-3 Sentry fleet has provided the backbone of US airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) operations for almost five decades. At present, the service employs approximately 31 examples of the type, split across three different variants: E-3B, E-3C and E-3G (the latest and most advanced standard of the Sentry fleet, which entered operational service in 2011). However, there are concerns that the USAF will suffer from an AEW&C capability gap as the air arm plans to retire 15 E-3B/C/Gs (almost half the fleet) before the end of 2023, which is long before the E-7A is scheduled to arrive.