The UK Ministry of Defense (MoD) has confirmed that it is talking with Boeing and the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) over a plan to purchase E-7 Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) systems. The news comes as three Royal Air Force crewmembers, comprising a pilot, an Electronic Support Measures Operator (ESMO), and a Surveillance and Control Officer, began E-7A Wedgetail conversion with the RAAF at Williamtown in September.
Strong rumours over the summer suggested that the Boeing 737-based AEW&C aircraft was in line to replace the Royal Air Force’s E-3D Sentry fleet, however a proposed announcement at the Farnborough International Air Show was delayed. Combat Aircraft has been told that budget decisions were at the center of the move to postpone a summer announcement.
In a Tweet on October 3, UK defence secretary Gavin Williamson said that discussions were under way with Boeing and the RAAF.
A statement said that the MoD had conducted a ‘thorough market analysis and had held discussions with other providers’, and that the E-7 Wedgetail ‘represents the best value for money option for the UK against need, whilst representing a significant opportunity for increased defence cooperation and collaboration with our key ally Australia.’
‘Further discussions are set to take place before any investment decision is made, as the MoD follows a stringent approvals process to ensure the aircraft meets the military requirement and represents value-for-money. If selected, UK industry could be involved significantly with the programme, from modification work to through life support.’
The MoD says that no formal acquisition will take place until it is sure the E-7 meets all requirements and cost parameters.
The decision to acquire the E-7 without an open competition is sure to rile other AEW&C manufacturers. Saab’s GlobalEye, which is based on the Bombardier Global 6000 business jet, is currently in development for the United Arab Emirates and its Erieye radar is said to be a generational leap ahead in terms of technology and capability. The MoD will need to conclusively prove that supporting a fleet of 5-6 737-based airliners will be cheaper and more effective than operating a fleet of GlobalEyes, for example, with sufficient footprint to generate a similar level of capability. The MoD says it favors the Wedgetail because it believes it is a proven and reliable aircraft.
The E-7 combines a 737-700 fuselage with wings and undercarriage of the 737-800. Above the fuselage a fixed mounting accomodates a Northrop Grumman Multirole Electronically Scanned Array (MESA) radar.
Boeing has only received limited orders for its 737 AEW&C — having delivered six to the RAAF under the designation E-7A Wedgetail, four ‘Peace Eye’ E-7s to South Korea, and four ‘Peace Eagle’ E-7Ts to Turkey. All of these suffered significant delays in service entry due to system integration problems. Australia is already in the process of significantly upgrading its Wedgetails with new combat identification sensors, tactical datalinks, and communication and encryption systems. Boeing Defence Australia is leading the three-phase upgrade, that should be complete in 2022.
The MoD says that the E-7 is a low-risk, readily available solution to replace the E-3D fleet, which is suffering in terms of operational readiness having been overlooked for major upgrades. Indeed, the pace at which the acquisition is required may see the UK taking delivery of RAAF aircraft as an interim solution. It’s worth noting that the official news release from the MoD specifically refers to the Australian ‘E-7 Wedgetail’ standard aircraft, rather than the generic E-7 or 737 AEW&C.
There will also undoubtedly be some commonality with the RAF’s new P-8 Poseidons, more with cockpit crewing and logistics chains. Integration into the UK military battlespace networks alongside F-35 and P-8 will also be a major consideration. Key questions will surround cost and potential UK industry involvement. It’s worth noting that all current E-7 customers were able to conduct considerable in-country work, included fitting out of the airframes after initial examples were completed by Boeing.