The UK has originally intended to operate five E-7 airborne early warning, it will now only operate three.
The Defence Command Paper released today, titled ‘Defence in a Competitive Age‘, states:
“We will retire the E 3D Sentry in 2021, as part of the transition to the more modern and more capable fleet of three E 7A Wedgetail in 2023. The E 7A will transform our UK Airborne Early Warning and Control capability and the UK’s contribution to NATO. The nine P 8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft will help to secure our seas.
The introduction into service of the 16 long range Protector remotely piloted systems will be the backbone of persistent, multi spectral surveillance, with the ability to strike and act decisively against our potential adversaries around the globe.”
Wedgetail is an airborne early warning and control system, commonly known as AWACs or AEW&C.
They are designed to track multiple targets at sea or in the air over a considerable area for long periods of time. This aircraft is replacing the E-3D Sentry, pictured below.
This isn’t surprising and it comes comes after speculation that the order for five E-7 Wedgetail aircraft would be reduced to three to save money.
Lord Moonie, a non-affiliated member of the House of Lords, asked via a written question last year:
“To ask Her Majesty’s Government how many E-7 Wedgetail AWACS systems they plan to procure; and what is the anticipated delivery timescale of each such system.”
Baroness Goldie, Minister of State for the Ministry of Defence, responded:
“In March 2019, HM Treasury and the Ministry of Defence approved the procurement of five E-7 Wedgetail aircraft, however, discussions regarding the final E-7 Wedgetail fleet size are on-going with a decision expected in the first half of this year. The first UK E-7 Wedgetail is expected to enter service with the Royal Air Force in 2023.”
Media reports have already suggested the Ministry of Defence plans to reduce an order for new early warning radar aircraft.
The Wedgetail aircraft programme has already been criticised by MPs unhappy about the lack of a competition to replace the RAF’s existing Sentry aircraft – known as its ‘eye in the sky‘.
In September 2020 The Times’s defence correspondent, Lucy Fisher, reported on Twitter that the MoD is 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“. The NAO also advise that the MoD has already reduced the number of Sentry aircraft from six to three in 2020 to save money.