E-7 early warning aircraft: the wrong deal for the UK’s Royal Air Force

20141223raaf8202385_0277.jpg In the midst of a chaotic possible withdraw from Europe, the UK has inked a deal worth almost $2 billion for five US-built E-7 airborne early warning aircraft. According to one former RAF Commander we spoke to it is the wrong deal at the wrong time.  Rumours had persisted since July 2018 that the UK was going to acquire E-7s, and this week it was confirmed. Five E-7s have been ordered and are expected to replace the RAF’s vintage E-3Ds from the early 2020s. The Royal Air Force ordered seven E-3D airborne early warning and control back aircraft in 1987 which replaced the woefully archaic Shackleton AEW.2s (essentially World War II bombers fitted with a radar that entered service on Avenger torpedo bombers in 1946).

The Shackleton. Britain has a long history of late, short-sighted or shabbily improvised acquisitions of AEW&C platforms.

That Shackletons, a type that struggled to reach 300mph, were asked to survive in airspace chock-full of MiG-31s and Su-27s says much about how the RAF has historically neglected the AEW&C role. Today five E-3Ds remain in service; four are in frontline service and one is used for training, the other two were withdrawn this month. IMP_9843.jpgThe E-3Ds are obsolete;  Justin Bronk, Royal United Services Institute (RUSI)’s Research Fellow for Airpower and Technology, noted in 2018, “… the E-3, even in modernised form, is no longer a cutting-edge ABM(anti ballistic missile) &S system in a world where proliferating long-range missile systems and emerging non-Western low-observable fighters can force it to stay hundreds of kilometres from contested airspace, placing a higher premium on BLOS (Beyond Line-Of-Sigh) communications capacity rather than onboard sensors…Even when it is able to operate closer to the battlespace, the AN/APY-1/2 mechanically scanned radar array common to all E-3s has significant inherent limitations in terms of its ability to detect low-observable, very slow moving and hypersonic threats, unlike more modern AESA-equipped AWACS types already in service with the US Navy and various air forces around the world. “
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To ensure the funding replacement, the E-3D fleet is being allowed to wither on the vine – with insufficient funding to keep the aircraft at the top of its game. Greg Bagwell is a retired senior Royal Air Force (RAF) commander who served as Deputy Commander (Operations) at RAF Air Command (and was Chief of Staff Joint Warfare Development at Permanent Joint Headquarters and then Director Joint Warfare at Joint Forces Command) – he noted to Hush-Kit that the current desperate situation should not have happened, “My major point is that we should have seen this coming. As we have chronically underinvested in the E3 over the years we were left with little choice but to buy off the shelf. But even doing that has failed to secure either significant UK content or offsets on other programmes. Quite simply, our IP and our money is being sent offshore for the promise of a few assembly jobs. It’s short term thinking at both ends and we will reap what we (don’t) sow.” when asked what should have happened Bagwell suggested the following:

” 1. Recognise the problem earlier 2. Either invest in E3 or have a plan for transition 3. If you have to buy off the shelf, make sure you secure enough workshare or offset.” 

We also spoke to Thomas Newdick, Editor of Air Forces Monthly“While choice of the E-7 may seem an obvious one, there are compelling reasons to suggest the RAF should have looked elsewhere. The E-7 is based on what’s now old technology. Aside from Australia, there’s little in the way of commonality with UK’s closest allies. There are even question marks about inserting the existing technology into a new basic airframe (production of the 700 series has ended) and will it be possible to plumb it for a probe (like the E-3D has)? Essentially, the UK is once again probably last in line to choose a specific AEW solution, as it was with the E-3, which then became a very expensive ‘upgrade vacuum’. The E-7 would seem to offer very little to the UK industrial sector in terms of workshare, despite the MOD’s claims to the contrary. Finally, it can be argued – as former RAF commander AVM Bagwell has – that the era of the manned conventional AEW platform is itself numbered and the UK would have been better off examining more radical (unmanned) solutions for the future….MESA was first rolled out in 2002 and the RAAF has since upgraded them -they faced obsolescence issues in radar processing hardware and IFF. It’s not the cutting edge any more, e.g. doesn’t have Gallium-nitride technology.”  Indeed AEW&C aircraft are considered high value assets by potential enemies- and preventing barrages of long-range missile shots from conventional aircraft, ships and the ground against AEW&C is hard enough, defending them from mass attacks from reduced RCS (radar cross section) aircraft like the J-20, may be close to impossible. Greg Bagwell also questioned whether it was a far-sighted decision — “A large, air-breathing, vulnerable, onboard processed, labour intensive platform. Was this an opportunity missed to seek a more radical solution?” More radical solutions include the use of large or small unmanned platforms and air balloons. wedgetailpix1.jpg So it may not be cutting edge or survivable in high-end war, but won’t it offer commonality — and resultant parts and maintenance savings – with the UK’s forthcoming P-8 maritime patrol aircraft? Both are based on the Boeing 737 airframe, but this may ideas of commonality may be illusory, Newdick notes that “Almost no commonality exists between E-7 and P-8. P-8 uses a different airframe and wings” . Indeed, the E-7 is based closely on the 737-700ER airframe, while the P-8 is based on the 737-800ERX with the wings of the 737-900ER fitted with raked wingtips —and the systems inside are very different. Big questions There are other big questions too – how likely is the UK to conduct combat operations without the US or NATO – both of which have their own AEW&C assets? And at time when US leadership’s relationship with its NATO partners is at its lowest ebb – is now the time to buy big ticket items from the US? The timing is bizarre in other ways – as the UK is facing massive economic uncertainties as its farcical attempt to leave the European Union continues to unravel. Additionally, Boeing, manufacturer of the E-7 airframe, is currently under great scrutiny for the recent crash of a 737 MAX. In summary, the deal is poor for UK industry, the aircraft is far from future-proof, the timing is poor and bad planning will leave the RAF poorly equipped in the short term. It smacks of a decision made behind closed doors without due thought.
Coming soon: the case for the RAF E-7s

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  1. Jim Smith

    The criticisms voiced here are essentially that the UK failed to plan ahead, and failed to secure a good industrial deal.

    However, the hard realities are that the existing equipment is obsolete and a replacement is needed. The E-7 is an available in-service system, which in coalition operations with AS has been sought by the US in preference to its own platform.

    From a decision-making perspective, no viable alternative is suggested in the article. Development of an unmanned system might be feasible as ‘the system after next’. Such a solution is certainly not available now, and, indeed, none is canvassed in the article.

    Pragmatically, this appears to be the only decision available to the UK that would not involve significantly greater risk, or delay in capability. Criticism of the forward planning and management of the UK AEW capability, which has lead to an urgent need to replace the E-3D, should not be used to denigrate the E-7.

  2. Duker

    Not sure this is a correct claim -““Almost no commonality exists between E-7 and P-8. P-8 uses a different airframe and wings”
    From the users point of view , they ARE the same airframe. The inner details of spars etc of wings dont matter when you are flying 600 hr a year. Its engines , pilots controls and main subsystems are the same. Fuselage frames are duplicated to make the bigger 800 over the 700, wing control surfaces and span ( apart from the raked wingtips) are the same.

  3. Matthew

    Well the p-8 and e-7 fill two completely different roles so it’s only common sense that the internals are different, expecting any different is lunacy. What does match up is the engines which the raaf has shown to be very beneficial as it allowed them to tap into the civilian supply line in a time frame and at a cost that purely military air frames could only dream about.

    Nothing else exists on the market to do what your article argues for and to make such a program would cost billions more and delay any in service date from a few years to two decades. The time it would take to develop such an asset would necitate an interim air craft which the e-7 fills quite nicely.

    The other option you don’t go for the e-7, spend billions on a design that may or may not work, lose aew capability for the next two decades and have the unit cost go so high that you risk a future government cancelling it anyway and buying off the shelf still.

    The suggestions of obsolescence also hold little weight when the e-7 is the most or one of the most modern and capable aew&c assets flying today with no hint of any one working on anything more capable or modern.

    If your going to argue against a particular asset acquisition then you are required to have a realistic alternative. None was suggested here beyond a few musings that are decades away from being an option.

  4. DaveyB

    The problem the MOD/RAF have been facing is the chronic lack of serviceability of the Sentry aircraft. The RAF have seriously struggled to make even one aircraft available for UK CAP duties. Therefore, the urgent requirement was to either inject vast amount of funds to try and bring the aircraft up to the latest standards or invest in a new aircraft that’s more up to date and available now.
    The problem is the APY- 1/2 although still very powerful cannot counter modern targeted jamming as its not very frequency agile. It has a slow and predictable sweep rate, so its refresh speed is not great. Therefore, if the signal processing was brought up to the same specification as the latest USAF E3D+ standard. Its performance would still be sorely lacking in the critical areas of resolution, target discrimination, clutter rejection and anti-jam.
    An obvious solution would be to rip out the APY-1/2 and keep the airframe, but replace it with the E2D’s APY-9 AESA radar. The problem here is that the aircraft would need a full rebuild, would keeping the 707 airframe be a wise choice? This was, I think the main driver behind the Wedgetail buy. Especially as the E2D uses a small airframe so has less room for growth. The RAAF have been operating E7’s over Iraq as part of the coalition package against IS. The aircraft has performed very well conducting both airborne surveillance and control, but also ground mapping. The ground mapping performance is being kept quiet for the moment, so either it performs exceptionally well or not quite as good as was hoped. Regardless, the MESA radar is more robust that the APY-1, it is frequency agile and multi-mode. It may not have the range of the APY-1, but at its maximum range it still has better target discrimination and resolution.
    The most important feature of Wedgetail is that it is available now and does not require a couple of years going through development trials, which both a 707 with the APY-9 or an Airbus with the Erieye would require. It may not be the newest kid on the block, but it does have growth potential as one of the future upgrades was to replace the transmit/receive modules with the newer Gallium Nitride ones.
    So given the urgent requirement and only one available candidate, Wedgetail is the correct solution.

  5. Pingback: 10 MORE of the Worst British military aircraft | Hush-Kit

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