• Boeing 737 AEW&C
  • E-7 Wedgetail
A Royal Australian Air Force Boeing E-7A Wedgetail
Role Airborne early warning and control (AEW&C)
Manufacturer
First flight 2004
Introduction November 2012[1]
Status In service
Primary users Royal Australian Air Force
Number built 14
Developed from Boeing 737 Next Generation

The Boeing E-7 Wedgetail is a twin-engine airborne early warning and control aircraft based on the Boeing 737 Next Generation design. It has a fixed, active electronically scanned array radar antenna instead of a rotating one as with the 707-based Boeing E-3 Sentry.[2][3] The E-7 was designed for the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) under "Project Wedgetail" and designated E-7A Wedgetail.

The 737 AEW&C has also been selected by the Turkish Air Force (under "Project Peace Eagle", Turkish: Barış Kartalı, designated E-7T,[4] the Republic of Korea Air Force ("Project Peace Eye", 피스 아이), and the United Kingdom (designated Wedgetail AEW1). In April 2022, the United States Air Force announced that the E-7 will be replacing the E-3 beginning in 2027.[5]

Design and development

Cutout drawing

The Australian Department of Defence evaluated industry proposals for airborne surveillance and early warning systems as early as 1986.[6] Further studies led to the approval of the first phase of Project AIR 5077 in 1994.[6] In 1996, Australia issued a request for proposal (RFP) for the aircraft for the RAAF under Project Wedgetail, which refers to the indigenous eagle.[7] In 1999, Australia awarded Boeing Integrated Defense Systems a contract to supply four AEW&C aircraft with options for three additional aircraft.[6]

The 737 AEW&C is roughly similar to the 737-700ER. It uses the Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems Multi-role Electronically Scanned Array (MESA) radar. The electronically scanned AEW and surveillance radar is located on a dorsal fin on top of the fuselage, dubbed the "top hat", and is designed for minimal aerodynamic effect. The radar is capable of simultaneous air and sea search, fighter control and area search, with a maximum range of over 600 km (look-up mode). The MESA radar is fixed unlike the hydraulically-rotated AN/APY-1/2 of the E-3 Sentry, which the 737 AEW&C is set to replace.[8] Despite this, the radar is still able to offer 360-degree azimuth scan using two broadside (side-emitting) electronic manifold arrays, each covers two 120° sectors from starboard and port, and an end-fire array housed within the top hat that covers a 60° front and aft of the aircraft.[9][10]

In addition, the radar antenna array is also doubled as an ELINT array, with a maximum range of over 850 km at 9,000 metres (30,000 ft) altitude.[11] Radar signal processing equipment and central computer are installed directly below the antenna array.[12]

Other modifications include ventral fins to counterbalance the radar and countermeasures mounted on the nose, wingtips and tail. In-flight refueling is via a receptacle on top of the forward fuselage. The cabin features eight operator consoles with sufficient space for four more; the Australian fleet will operate ten consoles with space for two more (four on starboard side and six on the port side).[13]

Operational history

Australia

Royal Australian Air Force Wedgetail

Australia ordered four AEW&C aircraft with options for three additional aircraft, two of which have since been taken up. The first two Wedgetails were assembled, modified and tested in Seattle, Washington, while the remainder were modified by Boeing Australia, with deliveries once set to begin in 2006,.[14] Boeing and Northrop teamed with Boeing Australia, and BAE Systems Australia. Boeing Australia provides training, maintenance and support, BAE provides EWSP systems, Electronic Support Measures (ESM) systems and ground support systems.[15]

On 29 June 2006, the Australian Minister for Defence, Brendan Nelson, stated that the Wedgetail was delayed despite Boeing's prior assurance that work was on schedule.[16] Boeing announced an 18-month delay due to problems integrating radar and sensor systems, and did not expect delivery until early 2009. Additionally, Boeing incurred $770 million (~$1.12 billion in 2023) in charges over the delay in 2006.[17] On 20 June 2008, Boeing announced a further delay due to integration issues with the radar and Electronic Support Measure (ESM) systems.[18]

A RAAF Wedgetail flying over the Middle East in 2017

On 26 November 2009, Boeing delivered the first two 737 AEW&Cs to the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF).[19] These aircraft remained Boeing owned and operated prior to the RAAF's formal acceptance on 5 May 2010.[20] The RAAF accepted its sixth and last 737 AEW&C on 5 June 2012.[21] All RAAF Wedgetails are operated by No. 2 Squadron RAAF and based at RAAF Base Williamtown with a permanent detachment at RAAF Base Tindal.[citation needed] In November 2012, the Wedgetail achieved Initial Operational Capability.[1]

On 1 April 2014, the first operational sortie occurred in the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, helping control maritime patrol aircraft off Western Australia's coast.[22] On 1 October 2014, a Wedgetail conducted the first Australian sortie over Iraq supporting coalition forces conducting airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).[23] On 26 May 2015, the Wedgetail fleet achieved final operational capability (FOC).[24]

In November 2015, the Wedgetail performed the longest Australian command and control mission in a war zone during a 17-hour, 6-minute combat mission, requiring two air-to-air refuelings to stay aloft.[25] Australian Wedgetail crews routinely perform 13-hour missions.[26] In early April 2016, Rotation 5 of aircrew and maintenance personnel that had been operating the RAAF Wedgetail in the Middle East achieved a record 100 percent mission success rate in Coalition operations against ISIS. The E-7A successfully conducted all 36 missions, each lasting upwards of 12 hours, amounting to nearly 500 hours of flying for the one aircraft.[27] The final Wedgetail rotation to the Middle East ended in early 2019.[28]

An Australian Wedgetail was deployed to Europe in October 2023 to contribute to international efforts to protect the flow of supplies to Ukraine following the Russian invasion of the country. This deployment is scheduled to last for six months.[29]

Turkey

A Boeing 737 AEW&C of the Turkish Air Force

Four Boeing 737 AEW&C Peace Eagle aircraft along with ground support systems were ordered by the Turkish Air Force, with an option for two more. Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) is the Peace Eagle's primary subcontractor, performing parts production, testing, aircraft assembly and conversion. Another Turkish subcontractor, HAVELSAN, is responsible for ground support elements, system analysis and software support.[30] HAVELSAN is also the only foreign company licensed by the U.S. Government to receive critical source codes.[31] Peace Eagle 1 was modified and tested by Boeing in the US, while Peace Eagle 2, 3 and 4 were modified and tested at TAI's facilities in Ankara, Turkey, in partnership with Boeing and several Turkish companies. In 2006, the four Peace Eagles were scheduled to be delivered in 2008.[32]

In September 2007, Boeing completed the first Peace Eagle test flight.[33] On 4 June 2008, it was announced that Peace Eagle 2, the second 737 AEW&C, had completed modifications; flight and mission system checks were completed in the third quarter of 2008.[34] In 2013, Israel delivered EW equipment for the Peace Eagle under US pressure.[35] On 21 February 2014, the first Peace Eagle, named Kuzey (meaning North), was formally accepted by the Turkish Air Force.[36][37][38] The remaining three aircraft are named Güney (South), Doğu (East) and Batı (West).[38] The fourth and final Peace Eagle was delivered in December 2015.[39]

In IDEF 2023 was signed project contract for the modernization of the E-7 Peace Eagle aircraft in the inventory of Turkish Air Force in order to meet the current operational needs of Air Force and to eliminate the obsolescence in the software. Within scope of modernization the aircraft will be equipped with IFF Mode 5 Responder, Karetta CRPA Antenna, Mission Computer Hardware developed by Aselsan.[40]

South Korea

A Republic of Korea Air Force Boeing 737 AEW&C

On 7 November 2006, Boeing won a $1.6 billion contract with South Korea to deliver four aircraft by 2012.[41] Boeing beat the other entrant, IAI Elta's Gulfstream G550-based aircraft, which was eliminated from the competition in August 2006.[42] The first Peace Eye aircraft was delivered to Gimhae Air Base, Busan for acceptance testing on 1 August 2011[43] with the remaining three aircraft delivered every six months until 2012.[44] The second aircraft was modified into an AEW&C configuration by Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI), then delivered to Gimhae Air Base on 13 December 2011.[45] After receiving AEW&C modifications by KAI, the third aircraft was delivered on 17 May 2012 to Gimhae Air Base.[46] The fourth aircraft was delivered on 24 October 2012.[47] In December 2023, Aviation Week & Space Technology reported that South Korea is negotiating with Boeing for procuring four additional AEW&C aircraft.[48]

United Kingdom

In October 2018, the British Government announced that it was in talks with Boeing about the potential for the E-7 Wedgetail to replace its E-3D fleet. Talks about using the aircraft were also taking place with Australia.[49] The apparent decision to proceed with procurement without a competition received some criticism, with the Ministry of Defence accused of displaying favouritism towards Boeing,[50] while Saab voiced its opposition to the "non-competitive" deal as it could offer the Erieye system mounted on Airbus A330 MRTT aircraft.[51] On 22 March 2019, it was announced by Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson that the UK had signed a $1.98 billion (~$2.33 billion in 2023) deal to purchase five E-7 Wedgetails.[52] The aircraft is to be designated as the "Wedgetail AEW1".[53]

Airframe modification was expected to be performed by Marshall Aerospace, but it withdrew in May 2020, thus Boeing selected STS Aviation Group's UK branch on 20 May 2020.[54] Two of the five aircraft are to be converted commercial airliners and the rest are to be new.[55] Each conversion takes about 24 months, with work on the first aircraft starting in 2021 and the last to be completed in 2026.[55] As of June 2020, the first Wedgetail delivery had been expected in 2023.[56] In December 2020, Air Forces Monthly reported that the UK was considering reducing its Wedgetail purchase from five to three aircraft and stated that such a move "could often mean just one aircraft would be available for operational tasking."[57] The 2021 Integrated Defence Review confirmed the reduced order of three aircraft.[58] In late 2022, it was reported that initial operating capability for the aircraft had slipped to 2024.[59] In February 2023, Air Chief Marshal Michael Wigston stated that the order of three aircraft may gradually rise to five.[60]

United States

USAF E-7A in flight (artist's depiction).

In February 2021 General Kenneth S. Wilsbach, the Commander of the United States Pacific Air Forces, proposed that the USAF rapidly acquire E-7s to replace the E-3s deployed to the Indo-Pacific region.[61] In April 2021, Aviation Week & Space Technology reported that Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa, also voiced support for a near-term E-7 acquisition.[62] In October 2021, the USAF published a "Notice of Contract Action" stating its intent to award Boeing a sole-source contract to study the E-7 to determine if it can meet USAF configuration standards and mandates.[63][64]

On 26 April 2022, the U.S. Air Force announced that the E-7 would replace the E-3 as it "is the only platform capable of meeting the requirements for the Defense Department's tactical battle management, command and control and moving target indication capabilities within the timeframe needed..."[5][65] An initial $1.2 billion contract was awarded in 2023 to develop two new US-specific variants of the E-7. A final production decision for a total fleet of 26 aircraft is planned for 2025 with the first USAF E-7 entering service in 2027.[66][67][68]

NATO

In 2022, NATO issued a "Request for Information" (RFI) for a capability to replace its 14 E-3A AWACS aircraft by 2035, with an "initial operational capability" by 2031.[69] Boeing stated that it had responded to the request, offering an E-7-based solution.[70][71] Saab and Northrop Grumman also responded to the RFI, offering, the GlobalEye and Northrop Grumman E-2D Advanced Hawkeye, respectively.[71] On 15 November 2023, NATO stated that they are to procure six E-7s to replace their E-3s to begin operations from 2031. The E-7 is expected to be based at Geilenkirchen and could operate from several forward locations across Europe.[72]

Potential customers

Italy

In 2004, the Italian Air Force was considering the purchase of a total of 14 Wedgetail and P-8 MMA aircraft, with aircraft support to be provided by Alitalia.[73] However, in 2008, owing to budget constraints, Italy chose not to proceed with either aircraft and chose a smaller, less expensive, interim solution in place of the P-8, the ATR 72MP,[74] and then in 2012 acquired two Gulfstream G550 CAEW as part of a counter-deal to Israel's $1 billion (~$1.31 billion in 2023) order for 30 Alenia Aermacchi M-346 advanced jet trainers,[75] followed by an additional order of two more aircraft in 2022.[76]

United Arab Emirates

The Wedgetail was a competitor for the United Arab Emirates' AEW&C program in 2007.[77][78] In 2015, UAE selected the Saab GlobalEye over the Wedgetail and the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye.[79]

Qatar

In 2014, Qatar stated it planned to purchase three 737 AEW&C aircraft.[80] In 2018, Qatar decided not to proceed with the planned purchase.[81][82]

Saudi Arabia

As of December 2023, Saudi Arabia is in the middle of a two-phase mid-life upgrade to its existing fleet of E-3 Sentry aircraft.[48] However, in August 2022, the U.S. Air Force revealed that Saudi Arabia has expressed interest in the E-7.[83]

Operators

Map with 737 AEW&C operators in blue

Current operators

 Australia
 South Korea
 Turkey

Future operators

 United Kingdom
 United States
 NATO

Specifications

Side view

Data from Boeing[89]

General characteristics

Performance

Avionics

See also

Related development

Aircraft of comparable role, configuration, and era

References

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