In a letter from SAAB to the Defence Select Committee Chairman, the company express concern over the lack of competition in the programme to replace the British E-3D Sentry aircraft fleet.

AWACS aircraft perform an important function on operations, providing long-range early warning and surveillance capability alongside airborne battle management and communications relay functions. The Royal Air Force possesses six Boeing E-3D Sentry AWACS aircraft.

Saab also point out that there have been no specifications or requirements made available to them.

“MoD officials have been briefed on some of our capabilities but at no time have we seen a UK requirement against which we can tailor our offer. Without sight of the requirement, it is hard to say that a competition can be held.

MoD officials have been briefed on some of our capabilities but at no time have we seen a UK requirement against which we can tailor our offer. Without sight of the requirement, it is hard to say that a competition can be held.” 

The letter, which also highlights that Saab had intended to mount the system on an A330, ends with:

“Our intention is simply to ensure that the UK is aware of the capability that our systems provide, their ability to operate within and against the very latest threats facing the country, and to do so in a cost effective manner. We also firmly believe that we offer unrivalled capability now and through Erieye’s life.

If unstated political reasons exist for a non-competitive approach to replacing the E-3D AWACS then we would be grateful if this could be indicated to us and we will cease marketing in the UK.

Notwithstanding any unknown political factors, we are concerned by the lack of competition and the lack of dialogue and response from MoD. Lastly, we are platform agnostic and will continue to offer Erieye to our customers’ platforms of choice.”

Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson recently announced that the Ministry of Defence is in discussion with Boeing about the potential for the E-7 Wedgetail aircraft (pictured above) to replace the current Sentry fleet.

The Chairman of the Defence Committee had previously written to the Minister of Defence Procurement to request that any requirement for replacing the Sentry aircraft be put out to a competitive tender, rather than bought ‘off the shelf’ with no competition taking place.

In its letter the Committee criticises the Sentry fleet’s poor state of maintenance. The readiness and number of flying hours completed by aircraft have been reducing, and the Committee has heard anecdotal evidence that only one of the six E-3D aircraft is available for service at any one time. On the possibility of Sentry being replaced with a new system, the letter notes the advantages of a competitive tender in terms of maximising value for money and allowing proper consideration of a range of alternatives. The Committee also considers that a competition is particularly appropriate in this case, as there are viable alternatives available which deserve to be given fair consideration.

Defence Committee Chairman Dr Julian Lewis MP said:

“AWACS is an important capability for the UK to maintain, particularly given the possibility of future conflict taking place in a heavily contested airspace against peer adversaries. The fact that the capacity of the RAF’s current AWACS fleet has been run down to such a low level is greatly to be regretted.

The Ministry of Defence, if it seeks to replace Sentry with an entirely new system, has the opportunity to regenerate this capability and to give proper consideration to the range of available alternatives through a competitive tender. The benefits of doing so are clear, and this is exactly the kind of engagement that the Department should be seeking with industry in its drive to modernise Defence.”

33 COMMENTS

  1. Apparently the Wedgetail hasn’t been manufactured for 5 years and some parts are obsolete.

    If this is true does throw some weight behind an alternative as restarting the production and redesigning to remove obsolete part is not without risk . If so UK should seek to productise it, like US has with P8. Airbus airframe, RR engines, Marshalls doing conversion work. A330neo airframe perhaps, which give instance commonality to MRTT operators.

    UK has done this sort of work in the past for other governments.
    https://www.arabianaerospace.aero/first-uae-spyplane-breaks-its-cover.html

    • Let’s not go down that road again. Whenever we do, the costs double and the output is less than expected plus more expensive. UK spec and built only works if large volumes are planned, which clearly won’t be the case

      • I don’t think UK would go down the same route as previous acquisitions, risk would be entirely on industry. Boeing will have to restart production on a newer version of the 737, sure they have the lessons learnt from the few airframes they delivered but its not without risk. With a single source contract they can move that risk to customer as there’s no competition. By holding a competition we may still get a Boeing aircraft but cheaper with Boeing taking on some or all of the redesign risks.

        Theirs clearly appetite from industry to get involved.

    • To be honest the whole not been in production for five years thing is a very big red herring throne to the non-expert MPs on the defence select committee who cheerfully took a bite! The E-7 has never been in large scale production, it is offered by Boeing on a bespoke basis as and when customers come along.

      As for parts obsolescence, again a red herring. As The_Wookie rightfully points out the type already has a well planned sustainment and upgrade program that will deal with any obsolescence issues.

      There is utterly no point wasting time and money on a development program for a new type such as Airbus and SAAB are proffering when there is an excellent and modern system already in service that fits the bill.

  2. To me it’s all about the Radar and which is most capable. Boeing will integrate it onto an updated airframe preferably one that can be refueled by the RAF. We are talking about 6 airframes so can’t see airbus being that bothered if they don’t build them.

  3. I don’t think that’s a massive problem as tooling is usually retained and upgraded parts would easily be manufactured especially given the planes maturity with other airforces.

    The downside is time frame for the new plane to come into service and that the SAAB/Airbus offering is just a white paper element and doesn’t exist.

    If we went down that route it will need design, testing etc etc… to occur which as we all know isn’t a time or cost effective option.

    This is another off the shelf buy and where there are upgrades required we can leverage the UK industry which is what’s important.

    https://www.defensenews.com/air/2018/10/17/lawmaker-accuses-british-defense-minister-of-boeing-favoritism/

  4. If this was another country alarm bells would be ringing and klaxons sounding about the number of deals that are being put through without any competition or in this case seemingly not even a public statement or indication of what the requirements are. I hope the ctte and the media are keeping an eye on this especially on what and with whom jobs civil servants and military personel are getting when they leave their jobs at the MoD.

    • As if that ever stopped civil servants moving to defense industry companies before. All these checks and balances add a lot of bureaucracy they don’t do a lot to prevent crownyism. If Saab can guarantee a superior product at a lower price them why have they not provided their baseline figure to show how much the UK would save.

  5. I really hope people are keeping an eye on what is happening with the growing number of deals that are being done behind the scenes without any competition or even public information about what the requirements are. If this was any other country we’d all understand perfectly what was going on but we are confident that it couldn’t/wouldn’t happen here. Maybe we should not be so confident.

    • Agreed Martin, SAAB have zero right to complain.
      If there is a cost benefit in commonality, and (by the time we buy them, no obsolete parts etc) then buying aircraft due to a better radar and as many common systems as is practical, with a P8, should be logical.
      Instead of SAAB moaning… it only needs to offer a cost relevant product with a same or better radar… it is the AWACS radar capability and cost benefit that really makes the case.
      Our Israeli friends at IAI also have a good AWACS system (that the US is very interested in), but they are not weeping about it not been bought.

    • Gives more insights..

      So the strategy is for the MoD to sit on its hands until a competition becomes completely impossible then use this as an excuse to single source…..

      On the integration, the wedgetail is base on the 737-700ER which has been replaced by the 737 MAX family. There’s are a lot of benefits from using a MAX airframe, firstly its just start production where as the NG is out of production. Its more fuel efficient and there are various airframe changes and new engines. Boeing are either offering the old NG end of line airframe or down playing the integration if the MAX is used.

  6. Afternoon all
    All vendors have known that the E-3 fleet is reaching its OSD, you would hope the pre-sale teams of these vendors would have been working hard to make sure that when the requirement arrived they would have something to offer.
    Vendors need to stop waiting for the MoD to request something and start to think ahead, SAAB being just the latest company to offer a paper exercise rather than a working or modelled prototype (people, process and technology).
    Whilst sounding good as a press release, A330 frame and proven C4ISTAR system integrating those takes years of work – at cost. These are just things the MoD do not have.
    What you are seeing in the broader picture is a military that is underfunded to deliver all the things it has to deliver so it makes balanced risks either not to invest or to remove whole capabilities – E-3 has lacked investment, MoD need to react and fast. WedgeTail gives the MoD the things it needs, capability in the short term and the mirage of success hiding underfunding and reactionary purchasing of off the self products.
    Boeing are doing well because they recognise this so are working on what is required next, admittedly they are lucky that their largest customer is willing to pay that cost to make sure they have the best equipment at the right time. Equipment they can sell overseas, reducing unit cost and expanding influence.
    Shame we are a bit short sighted really.
    The only worry is US sources are stating 5 aircraft – 6 is the minimum unless we are purchasing or leasing a 737 platform and training hours outside of the operational 5.

  7. SAAB can Jog on as far as I’m concerned with their “Concern”

    Buy Wedgetail If it’s the best system rather than spending more money on competitions.

    • Only governments waste money on competitions, the commercial sector runs competitions far more efficiently and gets what it needs for the best price on time.

      • Agreed expat. Commercial sector runs much more efficient competition.

        How do we know that the Wedgetail is the best for us if we don’t compare it to anything. Surely if you wanted a new car you wouldn’t go and buy the first one you saw, you’d actually look into it.

  8. Oh… I thought a Wedgetail buy was part of a deal to help sell F-26 frigates to Australia.
    We buy Wedgetails and spread the cost of the need upgrades for the Wedgetail between countries.
    I assumed the single supply non-competition was due to this.. rather like BA only buying Boeings until a “few” years back… Airbus was always trying to sell us cheaper air frames, but we were tied to the US due to war favours etc.

  9. Not sure about this.

    On the one hand standardisation Ona single platform is great and we should specify RR engines for all our aircraft as standard, but if Erieyes functionality is good and we can pair it with Bombardier airframes and if this a) provides jobs in the UK b) gives us more platforms at a lower total cost of ownership, then I think it should be considered.

    Saab have a point, the UK may be able to get a great platform at a lower cost if they were clear about their requirements. The DSC are doing their job here, in fairness as they often do.

    • Yes but SAAB/Airbus will not be allowed to fit 5 Eyes equipment which will then make their solution only partly compatible with a 5E coalition.

  10. I believe Saab and Airbus have been trying to discuss their proposal with the RAF for 2 years. Their idea was to take 3/4/5 existing RAF Voyager and rapidly modify with the Erieye (still in production) and replace those ac with boom tankers, solving two problems. If you listen to the Defence Committee questions the debate is about the risk of restarting the Wedgetail line (I think Boeing last did one 5 years ago?) versus the risk of integrating a Radar still in production on an existing aircraft. The latter is without doubt cheaper. Voyager has DIRCM which is 5 eyes I believe. Competition would flush out he best deal.

  11. Morning all
    Good to se lots of debate as always, if only our politicians, crown servants, military officials and potential vendors engaged in the same way.
    Couple of points though:
    WedgeTail is a ready to go product, whilst it hasn’t been built in 5 years the production line is not hard to set the production line up again, this Boeing we are talking about after all.
    At DSC this week it was stated quite clearly that the integration issues for A330 were just too great within the timeframe and cost window afforded for it to be a abianle option, make no mistake the MoD have put theme selves in this corner all by themselves by looking no further than their noses and the 2/3 year forward of their individual jobs before they change post.

    All this is not to say that there should not be concerns and worries about the WedgeTail system.
    U.K. sovereign crypt will need to be installed, specific U.K. equipment will need to be added.
    To sustain operations at 5 frames are required, 6 (5 operational and one for training) would be preferable.
    On the plus side though, we are getting a tried and tested system, we are working with the RAAF closely to get it up and running, we have increase in defence cooperation and trade.

    Is it the best option, probably not
    Is it the right option against the current requirement, does it satisfy the need now – yes
    MDP needs to buy the system, we all need to move on and worry about other things, like recruitment targets and incumbent suppliers not doing their job properly but still getting paid for it

  12. Hi All,

    I’m not overly concerned with the type of airframe chosen to fly the next AWACS platform. What is more important is the radar and its performance and capabilities.

    The SAAB Globaleye/Erieye has been in development since the early 90’s and uses a dual S band (2-4GHZ) active phase array radar giving a left and right cone of coverage of 150 degrees. It cannot cover the boresight (front and rear) of the aircraft.

    The Wedgetail also uses a dual active phase array radar but uses the L band (1 to 2 GHz). Howver they have also put transmission elements in the the leading and trailing edge of the “top hat” antenna. This gives the radar 360 degree coverage.

    In a normal environment and power for power you will always get further range with the lower frequency radar. This is shown in the data provide by both Boeing and Saab, the Wedgetail has the greater coverage and range. However, because the wavelength is longer the target’s resolution will be worse than say a lower wavelength radar. So you would think for resolution the Erieye should be better at detecting smaller stealthier targets. This is true, however much of the higher frequency’s radar resolution advantages can be overcome with discrete signal processing. This, I believe is the trump card in the Wedgetail’s arsenal.The aircraft has been proven to track not only air and surface vessels but ground targets as well. Whether this is as good as Sentinel, nobody is saying! But to do this the signal processing needs to be very impressive, as the requirement to show ground moving targets amongst ground clutter takes an enormous amount of processing.

    So for me, on a purely introspective and technical position I’d say the Wedgetail would be the better aircraft for our needs.

  13. Given the concern that the E-7 airframe is no longer in production, how about the “simple” solution of transferring all the electronic equipment to another Boeing airframe that the RAF is already looking to buy? I am referring to the P-8 Poseidon. The airframe is based on the 737-800 fuselage with a modified 737-900 wings. Additionally the airframe is stronger than the E-7 and is still in production. This will at least give a greater commonality of parts and maintenance practices within the RAF.

    As for those who call for a RR engine for the aircraft, there are no equivalent engines currently being produced by Rolls Royce that can be used. The CFM56 engines on both the E-7 and P-8 are upgraded versions of the engines already in use with the E-3D Sentry in service with the RAF.

  14. Can anyone explain if this were a ship there would outcry if we were to buy foreign. Why when it comes to aircraft is it different. We’re a stakeholder in airbus have one of the most complicated parts of the airframe built in the UK, the wings. We have a lead supplier for another complex part, the engines. We have airbus’s advanced wing research centre in the uk. We have Marshals who are experience in airframe conversions. And one of the worlds largest defence companies BAe.

    We seem happy to let the US have this work so why not the same for ships. Go off the shelf.

  15. To DaveyB and Rokuth, interesting thoughts which both add to the debate. A couple of points:
    1. The latest version of the Erieye in production for UAE has moved to Gallium Nitride according to Saab data. You seem to know a fair bit about radar so you will know GaN greatly increases the power of AESA radars. Wedgetail MESA is a 2000 design last produced around 2010 I believe, so no GaN.
    2. As you say the E-7 is based on 737-700 but it has a new section 46 to support the 3 ton antenna and ventral fins to counter balance the antenna according to 737.org. So a P-9 would still need significant modification. But the risk is probably more in the radar and mission system obsolescence as the design dates back to 2000.
    As I said best best way to flush it out is a quick competition. You never know the U.K. and Sweden could end up with a world beating system to work alongside TEMPEST which would provide freedom of action and exportable value.

  16. What we should say to SAAB we will give you a fixed price contract for £2bn for 5 aircraft for 2012 delivery with penalties for each month delay on each aircraft and see if they will sign on the dotted line

  17. i think i would rather a US airframe than any Airbus or other supplier, Airbus have played the old BAEs hand of removing flight hours to drive up costs. there is a plan to retrofit and update the kit into 767/737 frame. its the airframes that are short lifed not the kit. if this was a Airbus frame they would have pulled the ticket on them like concord.

  18. @Jon – a Boeing 737 /Airbus A330 can both have a commercial life of ~60,000 Flight Hours (cycles are actually more important)
    But Australia’s Boeing Wedgetail (custom737) are each only expected to do 15,000 Flight Hours over 25 years. So your issue on Airbus A330 (Voyager) frames is what?

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