The Air Force usually takes a long time to procure new equipment, even when the need for something new is clear and urgent. But it seems the service may drop its typical agonizingly deliberative process and move quickly to buy a replacement for—or at least complement to—its fleet of aged E-3 AWACS air battle control jets. That new platform will almost certainly be the Boeing E-7 Wedgetail.
“I want them in the inventory … two years ago,” Gen. Mark D. Kelly, head of Air Combat Command, said bluntly during an AFA Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies discussion last October. The E-3 is “unsustainable without a Herculean effort” on the part of ACC’s maintenance teams, and he warned that “there’s only so many miracles” maintainers can work “before physics come into play on a 45-year-old airframe.”
Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., speaking at AFA’s Air, Space & Cyber Conference (ASC21) last September, said the Wedgetail offers “an opportunity to be able to get” modernized air battle management capability “faster than if we were to start a new one from scratch,” and he’s been impressed with its capability, having flown aboard an Australian model twice while he was Pacific Air Forces commander.
Gen. Kenneth S. Wilsbach, the current head of PACAF, said Wedgetail is “a proven capability,” that he also finds desirable. In February 2021, Wilsbach told reporters at AFA’s Aerospace Warfare Symposium that “we need something relatively quick because of the reliability of the E-3.” He called the AWACS “challenged” by its age.
Air battle management is a critical mission. The AWACS scans the battlespace, detecting and identifying aerial threats out to 250 miles or more, vectoring friendly fighters to intercept them. To illustrate its range, an AWACS flying over New York City could manage the aerial battle as far away as Boston, Mass., and Washington, D.C., at the same time.
But the AWACS’s age is working against it. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, in a “Coffee Talk” aired online in January, said he’s deeply concerned that “some fleets, like our battle management fleet, AWACS … are not anywhere where they need to be” in terms of their readiness.
Readiness Rates for the Aged
Statistics provided to Air Force Magazine show that the 40-year-old E-3G fleet managed only a 60.65 percent mission capable rate in fiscal 2021. The E-3B variant managed only 55.78 percent, meaning that most of the fleet is unavailable for duty nearly half the time.
Speaking with reporters at AFA’s conference last September, Kelly said, “There’s a reason why exactly zero airlines around the globe fly the 707,” on which the AWACS is based, noting that parts and equipment to repair the type have become practically extinct.
Kelly’s October comments about getting a new AWACS in a hurry came just a few days after the Air Force published a solicitation seeking studies and analyses from Boeing to ascertain “the current E-7A baseline configuration and determine what additional work will be necessary” to make it compatible with Air Force standards. The Air Force didn’t state an intention to buy the jet, but senior leader comments indicate they’re leaning in that direction. Kendall, at ASC21, said the Wedgetail “could be useful” in bringing USAF up to date in AWACS capability.
The Air Force has resorted to new acquisition authorities given by Congress to rapidly acquire some new systems. Boeing’s F-15EX is one example that did not go through USAF’s and the Joint Staff’s elaborate requirements process.
In its October solicitation, the Air Force said “the Aircraft Rapid Prototyping Requirements Document [RPRD] has specifically called out the E-7A and it has been determined that this is a sole-source requirement.”
The E-7 was developed by Boeing for the export market. It’s hosted on a 737-700 airframe, and rather than a rotating radome—the iconic, flying-saucer-like feature of the E-3—the Wedgetail uses a large blade-like structure on its back, housing an active electronically scanned array radar.
“It’s … a smart sensor that directs beams, directs waveforms,” Lt. Gen. Steven M. Shepro (Ret.), Boeing’s vice president for business development for bombers, fighters, mobility, and surveillance said of the Wedgetail’s distinctive feature.
“The blade is transmitting, side to side,” he explained, “and then the ‘Top Hat’”—a horizontal lip overhanging the blade—“is able to complete the 360-degree coverage.”
Privately, senior USAF leaders said there isn’t a viable alternative to the Wedgetail. While the Northrop Grumman E-2D is in service with the Navy, which is satisfied with it, the turboprop-powered Hawkeye lacks the speed and altitude the Air Force requires. A Swedish platform called the Erieye similarly lacks the power, speed, and altitude the Air Force wants.
Kelly lamented that Australia, South Korea, and Turkey have a modern Wedgetail, yet USAF doesn’t field “a cutting-edge, air-moving-target indicator capability.”
Shepro said the Boeing study work is “ongoing.” It’s looking at “the configuration, feasibility, and risk reduction,” but he declined to say how long the work will take. The Air Force is “developing its requirement,” he said.
Besides being a fresher and more reliable platform, newer technology makes the E-7 more desirable, Shepro said. The E-3’s rotating radome “comes around every seven to nine seconds,” he said, but the E-7’s blade antenna is “instant sweep. This is especially important for long-range weapons and defense.” He added, “You have to have that speed of scan in order to confront modern threats.”
Based on the 737, the E-7 enjoys the benefits of that aircraft’s commercial ubiquity.
“It burns a third of the fuel of a 707, it has 40 percent of the sustainment costs, and it only has 50 percent of the manpower requirement,” Shepro said. “The availability rate with the partners is about 96 percent.” Somewhere in the world, a 737 is taking off “every five seconds,” he said, indicating how pervasive the 737’s support enterprise is.
The last E-3 was built in 1992. The type also equips NATO, France and Saudi Arabia, and Japan flies a version hosted on a 767 airframe. The British Royal Air Force retired its last E-3s late in 2021, in anticipation of the Wedgetail’s arrival.
The Air Force has made halting efforts at updating its air and ground moving target indicator capabilities. In the early 2000s, it planned to buy the E-10 Multi-Sensor Command and Control (MC2A) aircraft from Northrop Grumman. Hosted aboard a Boeing 767-400, the E-10 was to first replace the E-8 Joint STARS ground moving target indicator aircraft, with a new radar that would give it enhanced capability for spotting cruise missiles. A second “spiral” upgrade would have added capabilities to make it a successor to AWACS; it was even expected that it would use a blade-like radar similar to that on the Wedgetail. A third spiral—or possibly a variant airframe—would have given the aircraft signals-intelligence capabilities like those of the RC-135 Rivet Joint fleet.
The E-10 was scaled back in 2006, however, to become simply a demonstrator and disappeared from the budget completely in 2007. The only element that survived was the Multi-Platform Radar Technology Insertion Program (MP-RTIP) radar. The Air Force decided to keep the JSTARS and AWACS going with technology refreshes and postpone replacing them with new airframes.
The Air Force admitted, though, that its high dependency on JSTARS and AWACS made them tempting targets. USAF began to shift its sights to the Advanced Battle Management System. The ABMS is expected to be a cloud-like network of space-based and aerial sensors federated among USAF’s entire fleet, thus denying an enemy a single node it could shoot down to blind USAF forces.
Kendall has said, however, that he thinks ABMS has been overpromised and needs to advance more deliberately, requiring the interim step of new flying platforms.
In a Center for a New American Security interview in January, Kendall said there is no “grand solution” to the ABMS requirement, and there will have to be intermediate steps including “airborne components” toward an “over-arching solution.” A space-based system is the ultimate goal, but it’s not ready yet, he noted.
The space-based system won’t be “affordable or easily achievable on a timescale that’s realistic to meet our needs,” Kendall asserted.
However, Kendall did not specify the Wedgetail as the only path. Unmanned assets will likely play a role, because “high-level nodes” could still be “vulnerable to attack.” He also wants elements of ABMS to function in contested airspace, in which platforms like the AWACS could not survive.
The E-7’s more advanced sensor technology versus the E-3 means its detection range is “multiples” better, Shepro said, allowing the aircraft to either see deeper into contested areas, or stand off farther from them.
“It can even do maritime moving target” detection and tracking, he noted. It can also do electronic warfare support measures (ESM), “and then there’s a lot of classified capabilities I can’t discuss.”
An Australian E-7 participated in a January Red Flag exercise at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., and “the feedback was very positive,” Shepro reported. The E-7’s “ability to connect” with all the participants was a key demonstration; “second was the ability to do command and control at long range,” he said. The ability to “orchestrate … all that … stood out.”
The biggest advantage, though, is that the E-7 is “available. … It’s in production,” Shepro said. “We could get it on the ramp” for the Air Force “in under five years.” If the Air Force bought the E-7, there would likely be further international appeal as “other AWACS users would be interested in recapitalizing.”
There is a time factor, though. Boeing is looking at closing out the 737 Next Generation, on which the E-7 is based, in 2025. The company has extended production lines to accommodate the Air Force before, however, especially when it extended the 767-200 production line to give USAF more time to choose it as the basis of the KC-46 tanker.
NATO, Shepro said, “is looking at its allied future surveillance and command system.” The plan is for a “system of systems, but there’s a very good chance E-7 could be involved.” NATO operates 14 AWACS.
The Wedgetail could also be a “gateway” that could allow fifth-generation F-22 and F-35 fighters, which do not have compatible communication systems, to talk with each other, Shepro suggested. It’s not a capability of the E-7 now, but “it will be able to do that gateway capability in the future. That’s a configuration we’ll be discussing with the Air Force.”
Australia and Boeing have worked to make the E-7 capable of knitting together Australia’s F-35s, F/A-18s, P-8 patrol airplanes, and “eventually, their ATS Air Teaming System,” which is an unmanned escort for combat aircraft.
The E-7 is not yet an “open architecture” platform, but Shepro said Boeing is “invested” in open mission systems, “as you’ve seen with the F-15EX and T-7,” and could create an open architecture for the jet.
Air Combat Command is “focused on … the long-range kill chain,” and the E-7 would help it get there, Shepro asserted. ACC’s goals are to: “‘sense, connect, engage’ and ‘agile and comprehensive battle management,’” he added. “And that’s what we’re really invested in. … The E-7 really hits the mark on ACC’s desire to have that first-shot, first-kill capability.”
The Congressional Research Service, in a January bulletin describing new initiatives being pursued by the Air Force, said USAF “may see an opportunity to save money by capitalizing on … existing production” of the E-7, “although that may overlook the effort required to tailor [its] systems to U.S. requirements, and the fact that no budget line exists for AWACS replacement.” There is no “identified source of funding” for the E-7, the CRS said.