E-7 Wedgetail AEW&C
The E-7 Wedgetail Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) System is able to fly for long periods of time and manage the battlespace from the sky, providing situational awareness and tracking multiple airborne and maritime targets at the same time. It then uses the information it gathers to direct other assets like fighter jets and warships. It has already been proven on operations in the battle against Daesh in Iraq and Syria.
Surveillance aircraft carry out a broad range of tasks often referred to as ISTAR: intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance. Each aircraft type performs different functions, whether that is the submarine-hunting expertise of maritime patrol aircraft or the electronic surveillance capabilities of Rivet Joint. Collectively, they provide early warning and track adversaries, and provide targeting information to combat aircraft, warships and land forces.
Wedgetail is an airborne early warning and control system, commonly known as AWACs (or AEW&C). Easily recognisable by the large radar mounted on top, they are designed to track multiple targets at sea or in the air over a considerable area for long periods of time.
Speaking ahead of the meeting of Defence Ministers in NATO, Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said 03 October 2018: "The Wedgetail is the stand-out performer in our pursuit of a new battlespace surveillance aircraft, and has already proved itself in Iraq and Syria. Running air operations from the sky, it could be an excellent asset for the RAF and give us a real edge in this increasingly complex world.... Our future with Australia will already see us operate the same maritime patrol aircraft, world-class Type 26 warships and supersonic F-35 jets. Wedgetail may join that formidable armoury and help us work together to take on the global threats that we both face."
Following market analysis and discussions with other potential providers, the MOD has concluded that the potential procurement of the E-7 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 were 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 program, from modification work to through life support. The Wedgetail aircraft programme was criticised by MPs unhappy about the lack of a competition to replace the RAF’s existing Sentry aircraft. Then Minister for Defence Procurement, Stuart Andrew said: “there was no other proven capability,” that could fulfil the RAF needs in the timescale available. Since the decision to purchase the Wedgetail was taken in March 2019, only one of the Sentry fleet (ZH104) has been withdrawn from service and it was placed in storage in the US in January 2020. However, a further two aircraft had previously been placed in long term storage at RAF Waddington awaiting eventual disposal, although technically, they remain on the military register.
Modification of the first Wedgetail airframe was due to start in 2021 with the first aircraft being delivered to the RAF in 2023. In 2018 the MOD decided against keeping Sentry until 2035, saying upgrading the aircraft and radar would not offer best value for money. Instead, the MOD said it was taking forward discussions with Boeing for its E-7 Wedgetail aircraft. The decision to not allow a competition for the contract was questioned by MPs and the Defence Select Committee at the time. Then Minister for Defence Procurement, Stuart Andrew said: “there was no other proven capability,” that could fulfil the RAF needs in the timescale available. In March 2019 the MOD signed a £1.51bn contract with Boeing for five aircraft.
In September 2020 The Times’s defence correspondent, Lucy Fisher, reported that the MOD was considering reducing the number of aircraft to be bought from five to three. Jane’s Defence Weekly magazine confirmed with an unnamed senior MOD source that the MOD is considering a reduction to save money.
In the Defence Equipment Plan 2019, the MOD forecast the costs of the Wedgetail programme to be £2.16 bn. When asked about the difference, the Minister for Defence Procurement explained the figure of £1.51 bn relates to the value of the aircraft procurement contract, whereas the £2.16 figure includes training and future support costs. The National Audit Office has described the defence equipment plan as “unaffordable”.
Douglas Barrie, a military aerospace expert, explains that given maintenance and training needs, a fleet of three could create gaps in coverage. This, he said, would be “sub-optimal” given increasing Russian air activity. The National Audit Office said the MOD has already reduced the number of Sentry aircraft from six to three in 2020 to save money.
In this context, ‘a capability gap’ could occur if a needed, existing piece of equipment is retired without an immediate replacement. Parliament has taken a keen interest in capability gaps in the armed forces. The Defence Committee examined the gap in maritime surveillance in a 2012 report. The National Audit Office says the RAF has brought forward Sentry’s retirement date to December 2022, nine months before Wedgetail is expected to enter service. However, the Defence Equipment Plan 2019 says entry into service is December 2023, leaving a 12-month gap.
The MOD said there will be no capability gap if the Wedgetail order is reduced to three. The Minister for Defence Procurement, Jeremy Quin also said: “the transition from Sentry to E-7 Wedgetail will not result in any reduction in current capability.”
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