The Search To Replace The Air Force’s Geriatric E-3 Sentry Radar Jets Has Officially Begun (Updated)

Officials from across the service have earmarked the Boeing E-7 Wedgetail as their preferred Sentry successor.

byFeb 9, 2022 1:25 PM
The Search To Replace The Air Force’s Geriatric E-3 Sentry Radar Jets Has Officially Begun (Updated)
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The U.S. Air Force has officially launched the process of finding a replacement for its fleet of E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning And Control System, or AWACS, aircraft. The formal Request for Information (RFI) calls for two or more prototype aircraft to be acquired in Fiscal Year 2023 and delivered within five years. The successor to the Sentry is widely expected to be the E-7 Wedgetail, which is already in service with a number of U.S. allies, with plenty of prior discussion about buying that plane, including from Air Force officials.

The Air Force published the RFI yesterday, with the aim of identifying industry partners that can provide a replacement for the aging E-3 Sentry. As well as at least two “production representative prototype aircraft,” the service wants related ground support and training systems before deciding on a production contract. Ultimately, the Air Force could need replacements for the 31 E-3s in the inventory, 27 with Air Combat Command (ACC), and four assigned to Pacific Air Forces (PACAF).

A U.S. Air Force crew chief taxies an E-3 Sentry on the flight line at Prince Sultan Air Base, Saudi Arabia in March 2020., U.S. Air Force/Tech Sgt. Michael Charles

The RFI document lays out requirements for an advanced air moving target indication (AMTI) radar and battle management command and control (BMC2) capability, as well as identification friend or foe (IFF), and electronic support measures.

The service envisages its Sentry successor being able to contribute to at least six missions simultaneously, including offensive counter-air, defensive counter-air, air traffic control, close air support, suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD), air refueling, and combat search and rescue (CSAR). Separately, the RFI also seeks information on whether the platform will be able to conduct radar-based maritime surveillance missions, a growing area of interest, especially in the Asia Pacific theater.

As well as specific communications systems like the Link 16 datalink and Mobile User Objective System (MUOS), the solicitation also calls for details of self-protection capabilities, with a stated requirement for an integrated defensive suite. The issue of defending high-value assets like AWACS in increasingly contested airspace is the one that the Air Force has been grappling with recently, with some exotic solutions having been proposed.

In the meantime, the Air Force has already made moves to engage Boeing under a separate but related initiative, announcing a contract last October with a view to gaining more insight on the E-7 Wedgetail. This calls for “studies, analyses, and activities required to ascertain the current E-7A baseline configuration and determine what additional work would be necessary” to make the aircraft compatible with Air Force “configuration standards and mandates.”

It’s not clear whether the new RFI represents a change of direction or if it’s simply a case of gathering more data ahead of a decision. It does, at least, leave open the option of other industry players offering an airborne early warning solution to the Air Force, although the Boeing product is seen by many as the obvious candidate, being in production in the United States and also having worked regularly alongside the U.S. military on exercises and in combat environments.

Boeing officials at least are confident that their solution will eventually be chosen by the Air Force, leading to a formal program of record. Speaking to journalists ahead of last November’s Dubai Airshow, Mike Manazir, Boeing’s vice president for defense business development, noted that he was “very confident” that the E-7 would be selected.

“I believe they’ll be announcing sometime in 2022 that they’re going to move forward on the E-7,” Manazir said at the time.

At this early stage, however, the U.S. is not committed to buying an E-3 replacement, let alone the E-7 specifically.

However, with prominent and public backing from ACC boss Gen. Mark Kelly and PACAF chief Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach, some observers have raised the possibility of the Air Force pursuing a non-competitive procurement of the E-7, much as the United Kingdom did. In its favor, after having completed a somewhat extended development, the E-7 is now a highly mature system that is available essentially off the shelf.

Speaking at the Air Force Association’s Air, Space & Cyber Conference, Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. also seemed to identify the Wedgetail as a suitable E-3 successor, describing it as a “good platform,” and noting that he had flown aboard examples on many occasions. The Air Force chief also pointed to the fact that the E-7 would offer a much more rapid way of replacing the Sentry compared to developing a new platform.

Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., then PACAF commander, poses for a photo in front of an E-7 model with Air Commodore Craig Heap, commander of the Royal Australian Air Force Surveillance Response Group, after a meeting at RAAF Base Williamtown, Australia, in 2018., U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Hailey Haux

In December 2021, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall confirmed that the service is looking to buy the E-7 and described air and ground moving target indication architecture as one of his top priorities. Kendall also observed that a Wedgetail procurement would likely be an interim measure pending the fielding of a future space-based moving target indicator system, which would likely work as part of a wider ecosystem also involving a clandestine penetrating aircraft now understood to be at least under test. Again, Kendall’s vision was based on the relative vulnerability of a manned AWACS platform in the face of advanced air defenses.

Most recently, a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) E-7 was at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, for the Red Flag air combat exercise earlier this year, participating in high-end training scenarios with U.S. Air Force F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters, among others.

An E-7A Wedgetail assigned to RAAF Base Williamtown, Australia, lands at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, on January 20, 2022, for Red Flag 22-1., U.S. Air Force/William R. Lewis

Reflecting on the experience of U.S. cooperation with the RAAF E-7 during Red Flag, Maj. Gen. Case A. Cunningham, commander of the Air Warfare Center, said it “will feed into the lessons as we potentially look at bringing the E-7 capability to our own air force.” 

The Australian Wedgetail operating environment, which is eventually planned to include control of unmanned combat air vehicles is also likely one that the U.S. Air Force is taking great interest in, bearing in mind its own unmanned ambitions.

With a view to future combat operations in the Asia Pacific region, in particular, Brig. Gen. Christopher Niemi, PACAF’s director of strategy, plans, programs, and requirements, has previously pointed to the limited range of the E-3’s sensors threatening to make that platform no longer tactically relevant.

At a Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance roundtable last year, Niemi explained: “The reality is that [the E-3 is] a 50-year-old aircraft that there is no amount of money or resources you can pour into it that will either make it reliable or make it capable of sensing at tactically relevant ranges. And so I would say that the E-7 in my opinion is probably the single most important piece in terms of our capabilities in the future for the air superiority fight.”

For its part, Northrop Grumman, which produces the E-7’s primary Multi-Role Electronically Scanned Array (MESA) surveillance radar, has also been working on radar improvements and open-architecture advances that could find their way into an Air Force version of the Wedgetail.

Coincidental or otherwise, the fact that two (or more) aircraft specified in the RFI also aligns with the two aircraft that have been removed from the United Kingdom’s E-7 order. The U.K. Royal Air Force was originally slated to get five Wedgetails under a $1.98-billion order announced in 2019. However, a recent round of defense cuts trimmed that order to three, leaving two production slots that could, perhaps, be diverted to the U.S. Air Force.

Fixed-wing airborne early warning and control aircraft are already highly niche platforms, with few Western companies outside the United States currently having them in production. Of these, perhaps only Saab’s GlobalEye might offer a challenge to the E-7, although the selection of a Swedish system ahead of an American one seems a remote possibility. The RFI also stipulates a boom/receptacle air-to-air refueling capability that the GlobalEye, in its current Bombardier Global bizjet-based form, doesn’t possess. Furthermore, it’s not clear if a smaller-airframe solution like the GlobalEye would meet Air Force needs in terms of overall performance.

Nevertheless, Saab CEO Micael Johansson told Breaking Defense

last November that the company was ready to offer the GlobalEye to the U.S. Air Force, describing it as a “very competitive solution.”

Increasingly, the stars are seemingly aligning for the E-7 as the Air Force moves closer to some kind of purchase, although the RFI provides few details of how an acquisition program could take shape. But with a space-based radar capability likely still some way off, at least in the non-classified realm, the Wedgetail looks more and more like the most likely candidate to replace the E-3.

Update 1:55 PM EST:

In an interesting aside to this story, as the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center's History Office has now highlighted in a thread on Twitter, today happens to be the 50th anniversary of the first flight of the prototype EC-137D Airborne Warning And Control System (AWACS) aircraft. That jet and a second EC-137D would ultimately be redesignated as E-3As.

Contact the author: thomas@thedrive.com

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