RAF and Boeing detail progress of E-7A Wedgetail conversion as third aircraft arrives | New

The UK’s third and final Boeing 737NG aircraft acquired for conversion to the E-7A Wedgetail (AEW) airborne early warning configuration for the Royal Air Force (RAF) has arrived in the country.

Speaking at the Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) on July 15, Boeing Defense UK Managing Director Anna Keeling announced that the newly built narrow body had arrived at Birmingham Airport from conversion partner STS Aviation the evening watch.

It joins two second-hand cells that are already on the site and are undergoing what Keeling describes as “complex and heavy modification work”. She notes that the main airframe has received 100,000 hours of work since last September, including the removal and strengthening of section 46 of the fuselage to support the weight of Wedgetail’s Northrop Grumman MESA multi-role phased array radar.

The process also included drilling more than 30,000 holes, modifying more than 150 wire harnesses and installing 1,000 new ones, Keeling says.

The RAF, meanwhile, used RIAT’s opening day to reveal its updated livery for the Wedgetail AEW1, depicting an aircraft registered as WT001. Its tail will bear the Jambiya dagger insignia of the service’s 8 Sqn – which until last year operated the Boeing E-3D Sentry – and NATO’s AEW Force shield is adorned near its nose.

Air Commodore Alex Hicks, principal owner responsible for the RAF’s Wedgetail and P-8A Poseidon MRA1 maritime patrol aircraft programs, said the new AEW capability is expected to achieve Initial Operational Capability (IOC) status in 2024.

Hicks notes the challenges that were encountered during the acquisition process: the originally planned five-person fleet was reduced to just three airframes, and the type’s future home was changed after the contract was awarded from RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire to Lossiemouth in Scotland.

“For an 18-month period that kept everyone distracted,” he says. A schedule risk assessment activity will be conducted with Boeing over the next two months to establish a firm delivery schedule, IOC and full operational capability dates for the new system.

Northrop is currently conducting ground tests of Britain’s first MESA sensor in Baltimore, Maryland. “Testing is going well,” says Hicks. “The ability that [sensor] offers us in the air C2 [command and control] field is truly unprecedented. It will soon be shipped to the UK for integration into the main cell in Birmingham.

Noting that the company had not built a MESA radar for 10 years before receiving the UK contract, he says: “There were significant obsolescence issues which Northrop Grumman had to overcome.” This included the need to replace older technologies previously produced as line-replaceable units with unique electronic boards. “It has been modernized in several places,” he says.

RAF E-7A Wedgetail AEW1

Reflecting its earlier efforts to retain vital skills in maritime patrol prior to the introduction of the P-8A, the RAF runs an AEW activity known as ‘Seedcorn’. This saw 21 of its members integrated into the Royal Australian Air Force, where they gain experience operating and maintaining the Wedgetail.

“We have the first of those [personnel] back in the country now, and they’re helping us start thinking about how we’re going to do platform design, test and evaluation, and operational test and evaluation,” says Hicks .

Noting that the decision to reduce the E-7 fleet to just three aircraft – made as part of a defense review last year – was entirely “a ministerial decision” made before the current crisis in Ukraine, Hicks says: “I will absolutely make an offer to purchase additional assets.

“I would like five – I would like six, actually,” he adds, while describing the UK restoring its lapsed AEW capability as “important for national security”.

Operations with the RAF’s future Wedgetail fleet are currently planned until at least 2042, but Hicks sees great potential for sales and development of the platform, which is also flown by the Korean Air Force today. from the South and Turkey. With the US Air Force (USAF) having selected the type earlier this year to replace its aging E-3s, it believes NATO could follow suit when acquiring a “transitional” replacement for its fleet. of 14 airborne warning and control systems.

With a view to future cooperation, Hicks says USAF personnel “will be on board” as the RAF conducts design, test and evaluation phase assessments of its new type of surveillance.

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