The United States Air Force (USAF) has given Boeing a contract to create two prototypes of the new E-7A Wedgetail early warning and air traffic control aircraft. The veteran AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) Boeing E-3 Sentry will be gradually phased out and replaced with this aircraft.
The USAF operates 31 E-3 AWACS on paper, while the Alliance operates 16 of these aircraft. The aircraft uses the revolving radar aerial concealed beneath the dish radome to monitor the airspace. Other users in the air, at sea, and on land can receive real-time data about airborne targets thanks to the E-3’s capabilities. The E-3 radar has a range of up to 400 kilometres and can detect, track, identify, and report potentially hostile aircraft. Moreover, it can direct allied aircraft to these aircraft and guide them there.
2015 saw the introduction of the most recent iteration of the E-3G Block 40/45 aircraft into service. By 2024, the whole United States E-3 fleet will have been modified to meet the specifications of Block 40/45 by spending a total of $2.7 billion. This requirement is applied to Alliance E-3s as well. The last E-3s will remain active duty for at least ten more years before being phased out in favour of the brand-new E-7A Wedgetail.
The E-3 is based on the now-defunct Boeing 707 platform, which revolutionised civil air transport in the 1960s. Since 1978, it has not been manufactured; hence, spare parts are limited. Moreover, TF33 jet engines are not being produced. As a direct consequence, commercial airlines took the B707 out of service long ago.
Owing to issues with the B707 platform, US E-3 deployment has dipped below 60% in recent years.
The USAF chose the E-7A Wedgetail as the E-3’s replacement last year. The E-7 was designed and manufactured by Boeing for the Australian Air Force 20 years ago. The British, Turkish, and Korean air forces also used the “export” E-7.
The E-7 is scheduled for serial production for the USAF in 2025, with operational service beginning in 2027. By 2032, the USAF plans to purchase a total of 26 aircraft. The Alliance is also expected to induct it into the service.
The E-7A will provide improved air-moving target identification and combat control, command and control capabilities, and an advanced electronic scanning radar that will increase air combat control and enable long-range kill chains with potential adversaries, according to a news statement from the USAF. Among other things, the E-7A would aid in deploying long-range air-to-air and surface-to-air weaponry.
The acquisition of the commercial E-7 is an unusual decision for the USAF. Before, the USAF mostly attempted to deploy novel high technology solutions to meet demanding and complex needs. Establishing these high-tech solutions takes years and costs billions, if not tens of billions, of dollars. For example, consider the troubled development of the KC-46 Pegasus tanker.
By purchasing the E-7, the USAF will not be able to acquire the technology solutions that are the absolute best possible based on the most recent scientific and technological discoveries; however, the USAF will not be required to wait ten years and spend billions of dollars for the perfect technology. When purchasing F-15EX fighters, the USAF took a similar technique. Furthermore, US Air Force Chief of Staff General Charles Q. Brown Jr. flew onboard the E-7 multiple times last year and was “impressed” with its capabilities.
According to Andrew Hunter, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology, and logistics, the E-7A will be the primary airborne sensor for detecting, identifying, tracking, and reporting all air activities to joint force commanders. Obtaining this [prototyping] contract is an important step in ensuring that the Department of Defense continues to offer America’s warfighters, friends, and partners the capability to educate and manage the battlespace for decades. The E-7A will enhance awareness of the aerial battlespace by providing a real-time image of the air situation. It will be capable of controlling and controlling individual aircraft in a wide range of environmental circumstances and missions.
The E-7 is unique in that it combines a non-rotating MESA (Multi-role Electronically Scanned Array) longitudinal radar with a Northrop Grumman active electronic beam deflection AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array).
MESA has 360° coverage, and unlike the E-3 radar, which rotates once every seven to nine seconds, MESA can scan a 360° range instantly. The radar can identify low-flying airborne targets (drones, cruise missiles, helicopters) and surface targets.
The aircraft will also be able to interface with the ABMS (Advanced Battle Management System) multi-domain command and control system, serving as a command and control centre for complicated air operations.
The E-7 platform, the Boeing 737, uses one-third less fuel than the B707 and has nearly half the operational costs and staff needs. Furthermore, because B737 aeroplanes are widely distributed worldwide, technical help is easily and promptly available.