The U.S. Air Force has decided to replace its 31 elderly E-3 AWACS (Air Warning and Control) aircraft with the existing E-7A Wedgetail. The E-7A first flew in 2004 and Australia was the first customer, ordering six. So far 17 E-7As are in service or on order for export customers Australia, South Korea, Turkey and Britain. The initial American order will increase that to 32 E-7A and more orders will follow because 68 E-3s were built, most of them for export customers.
The American E-3s were built between 1977 and 1984 and all will be over 40 years old when the air force receives its first E-7A in 2027. The air force will order fifteen E-7As initially and may replace some of the remaining E-3s with proposed UAV-based AWACS. The 157-ton E-3s require more equipment operators and are more expensive to operate than the E-7A, especially because the E-3s are much older and the E-7A is a more recent and efficient aircraft design. The air force sees the cheaper operating costs of the E-7A covering much of the cost of buying and operating the new aircraft. Another cost-savings is the fact that Australia and Boeing paid for getting the E-7A through the expensive development process.
Wedgetail is a militarized Boeing 737 transport. E-7A cruise speed is 853 kilometers an hour and it has a crew of 8-12 pilots and equipment operators, for a search radar and various other sensors. The 78-ton Wedgetail can stay in the air for more than ten hours per sortie. Wedgetail can refuel in the air and Australian Wedgetails often flew longer missions (14 hours or so) in the Middle East. The limit here was mainly crew fatigue.
By 2022 Australia had spent another $443 million to upgrade its six E-7As with some new sensors and improved communications (data links with other aircraft and ground stations as well as improved encryption). The need for the upgrades became clear after several thousand hours of Wedgetail combat experience supporting operations against ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) in Iraq and Syria since 2014. This was the first combat experience for Wedgetail and began before Wedgetail was declared completely operational in May 2015.
Australia spent nearly two decades developing and tweaking Wedgetail and it is normal for aircraft of this type to be regularly upgraded, especially if they spend a lot of time in combat. Work on Wedgetail began in 1997 and the first ones were to be delivered in 2006. But that did not happen until 2009, when the first two arrived. By 2014 all six were available. Limited capability was achieved in 2012 but several of the electronic systems were still having some problems, causing more delays. The Wedgetail program has cost Australia over $3 billion and the suppliers have absorbed nearly a billion dollars in additional costs to fix most of the technical problems with the aircraft and electronics. There have been a lot of technical problems, many of them unexpected. It costs some $28 million a year to maintain each Wedgetail even if it is not flying.
Australia was the first customer for Wedgetail and that’s why the Australian program has had so many problems. South Korea, Turkey have since bought another eight Wedgetails and now other nations are interested as well.
The Wedgetail radar can spot fighter size aircraft 370 kilometers away and frigate size ships up to 240 kilometers away. This dual sea and air search radar capability is essential because Australia is surrounded by water and has no land borders with anyone. The radar can also detect other electronic transmissions up to 850 kilometers away and has software and databases that can identify a large number of different transmissions. Acting as a pure AWACS Wedgetail can track up to 180 aircraft and guide friendly warplanes to 24 intercepts at a time.
Smaller, more powerful and cheaper electronics made smaller twin-jets practical and the most cost- effective aircraft for tasks formerly requiring four-engine turbo-prop or jet aircraft. Even the new U.S. Navy P-8 maritime patrol aircraft is based on the Boeing 767 twin-jet airliner. India is using six Airbus A320 transports, provided by Air India, for conversion to AWACS aircraft. More specifically this is an A319, which is one of the Airbus-320 series aircraft that are similar to the Boeing 767. These twin jet aircraft often replace earlier versions installed in the 1960s four-jet Boeing-707 E-3 or four-propeller airliners like the Electra civilian airliner that first flew in 1954 and was used for the P-3 that the P-8 replaced. Only 170 Electras were built but there were nearly four times as many built as P-3s. A few Electras and nearly 200 P-3s are still in service but will eventually be replaced by twin-jet aircraft.
Pakistan used the Brazilian EMB 145 twin-jet airliner for their new maritime patrol aircraft. These replaced the older P-3C aircraft. Over 1,200 EMB-145s have been built since 1992 and in 1999 Brazil offered a military version, the R-99, for use as an AWACS, maritime patrol or ELINT aircraft. Pakistan is the second customer for the maritime patrol version and ordered three. These will replace the refurbished American P-3C Pakistan received in 2007. Six are still operational but they are older, four turboprop engine aircraft that are more expensive to operate.
The Italian Air Force, like many others, has switched to using smaller twin-engine aircraft for electronic support rather than the older, larger four-engine models. The latest addition to the Italian fleet is the G550 twin engine business jets for six new AISREW (Airborne Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance, and Electronic Warfare) aircraft. A decade ago, the equipment required to make an AISREW aircraft possible would have required a larger four-engine transport. That’s because a decade ago the size, weight, power requirements and onboard equipment operators would not work in a twin-engine aircraft. Over the last few decades, the equipment used by these electronic support aircraft has gotten smaller, cheaper, more powerful and automated. That means less electrical power and onboard equipment operators are needed.
Using twin-jet business or airliner aircraft for military purposes was first popularized by Israel in 2006 when they put their first twin-jet AWACS into service. Israel used an early model G550 long-range business jet. The 40-ton Gulfstream G550 was able to carry and provide electrical power for the Israeli-made radar and electronics. The Israeli AWACS came with a Phalcon conformal (built into the lower fuselage) phased array radar, SIGINT (Signal intelligence) equipment to capture and analyze enemy electronic transmissions, and a communications system that can handle satellite signals as well as a wide array of other transmissions. Only six people were on board to handle all this gear, plus the flight crew of two. The Gulfstream G550 can stay in the air for over twelve hours per sortie, and can fly at up to 16,000 meters (51,000 feet). It's a larger version of the Gulfstream G400, which the U.S. Army used as the C-20H transport. The U.S. Coast Guard, Air Force and Navy also use militarized Gulfstreams. The Israeli example made other manufacturers of similar twin-engine aircraft that there was a new market for their aircraft.