The decision to purchase only three E-7 Wedgetail early warning aircraft has been, once again, criticised.
Dr Sophy Antrobus, Research Fellow at Freeman Air and Space Institute, told the Defence Committee:
“I do not think three is the right number and I cannot see it ever being the right answer. You will have heard these arguments rehearsed before, so I will be relatively brief. If you have one aircraft in deep maintenance, you have further two aircraft, you are trying to cover 24-hour orbit and one of those aircraft has a minor fault, you are stuffed, effectively. I know that the RAF would very much want to go back to five, four at the very minimum. It is just the wrong number, and there is no point in me going any further than saying that.
I would make the point that if there is a decision or revision of that decision, as you mentioned the IOC date, the FOC date is intended to be 2026, so that would be when the third Wedgetail, as currently planned, comes on stream. It is being developed and finished, as you will know, in Birmingham. If the decision is not made by then or in time, that production facility will cease to exist, so there is a relevance of dates and timings.”
Justin Bronk, Senior Research Fellow for Airpower and Technology at the Royal United Services Institute, added:
“If four is the minimum number to give you an orbit somewhere you want it and you are saying that, for territorial defence reasons, you probably want the ability to put up another orbit at a much shorter projection distance near the home airbase, you are probably looking at a fleet of six or seven. That is close to what we had E-3D on for a long time for, I suspect, good reasons.”
The UK had originally intended to operate five E-7 airborne early warning, it will now only operate three.
The Defence Command Paper released in March last year, 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.
What is the current status?
Testing recently started on the MESA sensor destined for the UK’s 1st E-7.
According to the manufacturers, the MESA radar electronically scans the skies around the Boeing 737-based aircraft, “providing the warfighter with an unrestricted 360-degree view. The powerful MESA sensor provides mission crews with the tools needed to track airborne and maritime targets while maintaining continuous surveillance of the operational area”.