The British Ministry of Defence announced on March 22 a nearly $2 billion procurement of a fleet of five Wedgetail E-7 airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft from Boeing. With British aircrews already training on the Wedgetail in Australia and Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson confirming on October 2, 2018, that discussions with the U.S. manufacturer were underway, the procurement was seen as a foregone conclusion.
Defence Secretary @GavinWilliamson has signed a $1.98Bn deal to purchase five E-7 Wedgetail aircraft. The E-7 fleet will replace the current E-3D Sentry & ensure the continued delivery of the UK’s Airborne Early Warning & Control capability.
— Royal Air Force (@RoyalAirForce) March 22, 2019
That the British opted for a single-source avenue rather than float a competitive tender, however, drew complaints from both the Parliamentary Defence Committee and rival manufacturers including Airbus and Saab.
But with the Royal Air Force’s fleet of E-3D Sentry AEW aircraft suffering from groundings, low serviceability rates, and high maintenance costs, the need to replace and improve an eroding situational awareness/command-and-control capability appears to have prompted officials to pursue a faster course.
The E-3D Sentrys were earlier planned to remain operational through 2035 as per Britain’s 2015 Strategic Defense and Security Review. However, a proposed GBP2 billion upgrade (the airframes of these aircraft are based on the 1950s design for the Boeing 707) was instead reduced to a concept study in order to achieve savings and generate RAF near-term efficiencies.
The Defence Ministry undertook its own market analysis of the AEW&C options in 2018 and concluded that the E-7 represented the best value for money option. The aircraft purchase also brings added value in terms of localized work share with Cambridge-based aerospace company Marshall Aerospace and Defence Group, set to convert the Boeing 737 NG airframes to the E-7 AEW standard.
Boeing’s E-7 is based on a standard 737-700 airframe outfitted with an advanced electronically scanned array (AESA) radar and 10 mission crew consoles capable of tracking airborne and maritime targets simultaneously with 360-degree coverage. The British E-7s will be based on the Australian-configured model of the aircraft.
The purchase thus allows for greater interoperability with close ally Australia, which, like the U.K., will be operating fleets of P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft and F-35 Lightning II combat aircraft across the coming decades.
While no timetable was provided by the MoD, reports indicate that delivery of the first aircraft should occur in 2023.