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.

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John Hartley

I can understand cutting from 5 to 4 (French E3 number), but going to 3 is going to leave a gap in a crisis.


Agree, think this too low.


Protector being spun as some sort of AEW platform?

James Fennell

Yes they can order some of the radar equipped versions and they can operate with both E7 and P8 to expand the envelope.

Last edited 6 days ago by James Fennell

radar alone is not quite a battle management platform

James H

Is it even worth buying them now? Can you seriously do much with 3 or do they become a token effort

Alabama boy

AEW has now become a Cinderella activity in the RAF. 3 E7s do not replace the capability of 7 E3s which were bought as a wartime capability. Just because we can now only get one E3 in the air on any day it doesn’t mean our wartime capability requirement is one aircraft. I would also be concerned that the UK is planning that the conversion of the used 737s will proceed on plan and the first aircraft will be operational in 2023. 3 aircraft is hardly a viable production line worthy of high investment by Boeing and it wouldn’t be… Read more »


3 2nd hand airframes were already secured, final 2 were new build which may explain there cut. the bone yards are full of low hour airframes…

Andrew R

At this rate, what’s the point in having a dedicated air force?


to keep Scotland exporting whisky and cigars


The current fleet of 3 E3s Nato is upgrading its entire AWACS fleet, so 3 E7s which has far superior performance than the old E3s.

And the P8s can carry as standard the AN/APS-149 LSRS, So do we really need E7s…
might just make sense for once


We probably do if the P8s are conducting their primary role of Sub hunting! Just like they can’t be in two places at once, they can’t really do two totally different jobs at once!


Depends on the version of the E3. UK E3 were not updated for years, but US E3 have been not that long ago.


Yes, the AN/APS-149 radar does much the same job as Sentinel’s Dual Mode Radar Sensor (DMSR) for providing moving target information along with high resolution ground mapping using synthetic aperture techniques. It is not designed to search for very high speed targets, nor stealthy targets, whereas the multi-role electronically scanned array (MESA) radar on the Wedgetail is. The MESA can also provide the same detail that the AN/APS-149 can.


I don’t think this is a bad thing cutting the Boeing 737-800 based platform purchases. The 737-800 is not ideal for the Maritime / Anti-sub and the AWACs role that the RAF is purchasing them for in the form of the P8 and the E7. I think this is an opportunity for the RAF to look at a newer more modern platform better suited for the 21st century such as the Kawaski P1 which i fell is a much better platform for both roles of Maritime Patrol / Anti-Sub and AWECs. The RAF acquiring the Kawaski platform can modify it… Read more »


Creating a bespoke solution for the UK is going to be horribly expensive and is going to guarentee the program dies. Considering the extremely limited purchasing power of the MoD, buying existing aircraft is the only real option.


Totally agree with your comments on the Japanese angle, also thought that the P1 would have been a better choice of airframe. I believe it was considered by the MOD, but ultimately lost out to the Boeing offering.


Still fancy the Airlander hybrid airship as a AEW platform. The Wedegtail’s MESA radar could be housed internally. The airship would allow you days worth of on station time.


That is not going to happen. Complete wishful thinking.

Andy L

Surely with the fleets of grounded 737s which could be purchased at a fraction of the new price, 4 E7s could be funded if all the donor aircraft were low hours used ones

James Fennell

Airframe is a very minor part of cost

David Nicholls

I suspect part of the logic here is that the new Typhoon AESA radar should change the dynamics of intercept direction and for the Navy they will be having 8 Crowsnest helos which, while not as good as the E7, will provide organic AEW to the RN.

James Fennell

And F-35 too – is basically its own AWACS. Add Protector to the soup.

Supportive Bloke

Could it be that work on the Typhoon radar upgrade has put the F35 and E7 radars in the shade?

Something is moving thinking very fast here.

When RAF got their hands on F35 it was ‘the thing’ they have now cooled on that.

Just a thought.


Frankly, I don’t see it. Yes the F35’s APG-81 radar is a game changer, as will be the Captor-E. But neither can compete with the E7’s MESA for detection range. It’s simple physics based on antenna gain and the radar’s operating frequency. Both the F35 and Typhoon have quite large noses that can house antenna about 2 to 3m squared. Therefore for best performance you need to match the antenna to the operating frequency, which in this case is within the X/Ku bands (8 to 18 GHz). The wavelength is 3.75 cm to 1.6cm, therefore you can fit over a… Read more »

Supportive Bloke

I agree with all that.

But something is changing thinking here.


Its quite simple the RAF had to find their share of the ‘black hole’ savings and after retiring the C130s, Tr 1 Typhoon and Hawk ac the only RAF project left with any value attached to it was the E3 replacement the E7 which probably had about £1-2 B opportunity savings available. The senior RAF officers who agreed this plan probably said we have managed with only 3 E3s for a number of years so we can manage with only 3 E7s. Clearly this is the cost of so many MOD projects overrunning in time and cost. I fully expect… Read more »


Absolutely pathetic.

Rob N

Have you spotted that Sentry will be retied in 2021 but E7 will not be operational until 2023! That looks like an AEW gap to me….


Wrong on every level!


Anyone noticed that there will be a period between the withdrawal of the E3 and introduction of the E7 when the UK will not have its own AEW capability? Seems this sort of capability gap is quite acceptable to our leaders nowadays, the most glaring example being the 10 years between Nimrod and P8. The gap between Sea Skua and Sea Venom also comes to mind. Surely our allies must have noticed this trend.


Even Australia has 6!