The United Kingdom (UK) has begun exclusive talks with Boeing to procure E-7 Wedgetail Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) aircraft to replace its ageing fleet of six E-3D Sentry AWACS aircraft.
Gavin Williamson, the UK defence secretary, has confirmed that his country was going ahead with talks to acquire the aircraft, developed by Boeing for the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) under “Project Wedgetail” and designated E-7A Wedgetail. He added that discussions are also taking place with Australia about cooperating in the use of the aircraft.
Christopher Pyne, Australia’s Minister for Defence, and Steve Ciobo, Minister for Defence Industry, welcomed the announcement and said it would further deepen Australia’s relationship with the United Kingdom and was an endorsement of a crucial part of Australia’s air combat capability.
“The Wedgetail is a great Australian success story, designed for the Royal Australian Air Force with investment by the Australian Government and significant contribution by Australian industry, it is a highly advanced world-best aircraft,” Minister Pyne said.
“Widely recognised as the most advanced aircraft of its type in the Western world, the Wedgetail provides state-of-the-art airborne surveillance, communications and battle management systems. Australia has had Wedgetail aircraft deployed in the Middle East since October 2014 in support of operations against ISIL, with the aircraft achieving a 98 per cent mission success rate.”
The decision to move ahead with one potential supplier is likely to spark a backlash from parts of the defence establishment as it has been done without a competitive process. The project could cost the UK MoD around £5bn over its expected 20-year operational lifespan, for which Britain will receive five or six E-7 aircraft.
Boeing 737 AEW&C
Boeing 737 AEW&C is a twin-engine airborne early warning and control aircraft designed for the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) under “Project Wedgetail” and designated E-7A Wedgetail.
The 737 AEW&C is based on the Boeing 737 Next Generation (737NG) design, roughly similar to the 737-700ER. It is lighter than the 707-based Boeing E-3 Sentry, and mounts a fixed, active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar antenna instead of a rotating one.
The aircraft uses the Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems Multi-role Electronically Scanned Array (MESA) radar. The L-band (1 to 2 GHz) electronically scanned AEW and surveillance radar is located on a dorsal fin on top of the fuselage, dubbed the “top hat”, and is designed for minimal aerodynamic effect.
The radar is capable of simultaneous air and sea search, fighter control and area search, with a maximum range of over 600 km (look-up mode). When operating in look-down mode against fighter-sized target, the maximum range is in excess of 370 km. When used against maritime targets, the maximum range is over 240 km for frigate-sized targets. MESA is capable of simultaneously tracking 180 targets and conducting 24 intercepts. In addition, the radar antenna array is also doubled as an ELINT array, with a maximum range of over 850 km at 9,000 meter altitude.
The 737 AEW&C has also been selected by the Turkish Air Force (under “Project Peace Eagle”, Turkish: Barış Kartalı) and the Republic of Korea Air Force (“Project Peace Eye”, Korean: “피스 아이”), and has been also proposed to Italy and the United Arab Emirates.