A decade ago, the RAAF officially took delivery of the first two of six E-7A Wedgetail aircraft, troubled then but now recognised as likely the best airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft in service anywhere in the world.
That occasion on April 30 was marked by the RAAF and by Boeing Defence Australia, but unfortunately passed mostly unremarked by the rest of the community amidst the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown.
“Pretty exciting achievement,” said Darryn Fletcher, Boeing Defence Australia director of commercial derivative aircraft. “The journey in getting it to delivery let alone 10 years is something we are proud to be a part of as a company in partnership with Defence. It was obviously a very complex program. The involvement of our parent company back in the US was very important as well.
“We support (the RAAF) with the sustainment program, but also the modification program for where they want to take the platform over its life of type,” he said.
For all of Wedgetail’s acknowledged capability at managing the air battlespace, much of what it can do remains classified. Therefore, Fletcher said he could not say too much. “There is only so much we can talk about in relation to the capability,” he said.
While the RAAF received its first two aircraft back in 2010, they had actually been around much longer, with Wedgetail A30-001 making its first flight in May 2004.
Wedgetail was a long time coming. Back in the 1980s, the ADF recognised the need for an airborne battlespace management capability, with the government releasing a request for proposal in 1996. Four years later it was announced the winner was Boeing with a version of the widely used 737-700 airliner, fitted with the new Northrop Grumman Multi-role Electronically Scanned Array (MESA) radar.
It was recognised that this was an extremely innovative proposal carrying considerable technical risk, and thus this was borne out.
Problems with the radar led to long delays, and the government came close to pulling the plug. Reassured that the radar could be made to work, the Commonwealth opted to persevere as did Boeing – which took a substantial loss on the project – on the expectation it would make good on future sales.
The RAAF declared final operational capability (FOC) in May 2015, 77 months later than originally planned.
Since then, RAAF Wedgetails have demonstrated their exceptional capabilities in support of the air campaign against Islamic State over Iraq and Syria.
Already Boeing has sold four Wedgetails each to Turkey and South Korea where they are, respectively, named Peace Eagle and Peace Eye, while in March last year Britain announced it would buy five. Italy, Qatar and the UAE have all been reported to be interested in the E-7, as has NATO.
However, the truly alluring deal to replace the USAF’s fleet of 31 ageing Boeing 707-based E-3 Sentry AWACS aircraft remains uncertain. At the moment, the USAF says it’s looking to see its E-3s through to life of type around 2035, by which time the oldest airframe will be a stately 64.
Although Australia’s Wedgetails have just passed their 10th year in service, they are no longer in their prime. Once the F/A-18 Hornets are retired, after C-130J the Wedgetails will be the RAAF’s second oldest platform.
Key Wedgetail systems reflect technology current when the aircraft came off the production line. To this end, an upgrade program dubbed Project AIR 5077 Phase 5A is under way to update navigation, IFF (identification friend or foe), tactical datalinks, communication and encryption systems.
Navigation improvements will bring Wedgetails up to the same capability in congested airspace as current production civil 737s. IFF (identification friend or foe) will be upgraded from Mode 4 to Mode 5 – a crucial cyber-security enhancement – with Australia following the US military and which eventually will be applied to all ADF aircraft.
Wedgetail Program Director Claire Kluge said AIR 5077 Phase 5A was a complex program, and the scope now was different to when it was originally contracted. “It has a number of different releases within that one program, and different aircraft over the next four years will undergo the modifications,” she said.
Like most commercial derivatives, the Wedgetail airframe has proved totally reliable. However a further upgrade to mission systems is planned under project Air 5077 Phase 6, with first pass around 2021-22, and capability release in 2025-26.