|Wedgie is seriously on the rocks now, apparently the new radar doesn't look like it wants to work. Why Defence can't learn our lesson that we just aren't big enough to pull off major bleeding edge technology projects without unacceptable risks to our defence capability and budget is beyond me. What would have been wrong with sticking the latest version of the E-2's radar on top of a 767 airframe, or some other similar COT/MOTS solution?
PROJECT Wedgetail, the RAAF's $3.8 billion hi-tech airborne surveillance and early warning system, is in deep trouble and may never achieve the performance levels expected by the air force.
So fundamental are the problems surrounding Wedgetail that Defence has had to commission a top US laboratory to conduct an independent design and performance review of the aircraft's radar developed by US defence giant, Northrop Grumman.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Lincoln Laboratory is undertaking the review, assisted by a small team from Australia's Defence Science and Technology Organisation.
Australia is the leading customer for the Wedgetail airborne early warning system that will see six modified Boeing 737-700 aircraft, mounted with a specially developed phased array radar, delivered to the RAAF under a contract originally signed in 1997.
The worry for the Government is that, if the Wedgetail system can't meet the RAAF's requirements, it will become a procurement nightmare far worse than the $1billion Seasprite helicopter debacle finally cancelled last year.
The Defence Materiel Organisation urgently sought an independent review by Lincoln Laboratory after the prime contractor, Boeing, had further significant problems integrating Wedgetail's multi-role electronically scanned array radar with other systems on the aircraft.
Already running at least 38 months late, Project Wedgetail is designed to be the nerve centre of Australia's air defence system over the next generation.
The Wedgetail's radar is designed to track hundreds of targets in the air and at sea simultaneously, including cruise missiles at a range of more than 400km.
Senior defence sources say the problems with the radar go beyond simple target identification and software integration issues to the basic performance and geometry of the system, which sits on top of the 737's fuselage.
The Lincoln Laboratory assessment is due to be completed by the end of March and will be followed by flight testing over northern Australia in May.
Lincoln is a US government-funded research and development lab that works on cutting edge defence technologies, such as ballistic missile defence.
Subject to further tests later this year, Boeing expects to deliver an initial 737 aircraft to the RAAF for training tasks in November with the first two planes achieving full capability by March next year.
Parliamentary secretary for defence procurement Greg Combet said last night there was still a "long way to go and many hurdles to overcome" with Wedgetail's radar and integrated system performance.
"The Wedgetail early warning and control aircraft are, by their very nature, extremely complex, given the range of cutting-edge radar technology and sensors that will be incorporated into each aircraft," Mr Combet told The Weekend Australian.
Mr Combet said Boeing had not sought, nor had the commonwealth agreed to, any change in the Wedgetail contract prior to the completion of the review by Lincoln Laboratory and the operational evaluation.
He said a "high-level summit" involving the commonwealth, Boeing and Northrop Grumman to determine the way ahead for the program was planned for later this year.
Boeing and Northrop Grumman remain confident the performance of the Wedgetail system will easily exceed any existing airborne warning system.