The recent Auditor General’s 2009-10 Major Projects Report states Wedgetail’s radar performance will not meet specification at final delivery and identified other technical challenges in the development of the Electronic Support Measures, Electronic Warfare Self Protection and ground support systems. Delivery of the final configuration has subsequently been put back between six and nine months whilst another software increment is negotiated with the manufacturer.
The good news is that significant progress has been made over the past year or so and, subject to a successful negotiation of the next software increment, final configuration should be delivered during the middle of the year, allowing Initial Operating Capability to follow in December.
Testing of the Northrop Grumman Multi-Role Electronically Scanned Array (MESA) radar during the last few years has revealed significant shortfalls in performance, particularly with side-lobe issues, which affect the radar’s ability to see through clutter and also have an impact on false alarm performance. By the end of 2008 an impasse between Boeing (as prime contractor) and the Commonwealth had been reached, as the original contract did not allow for aircraft to be accepted until developmental testing had been completed – and developmental testing could not be completed whilst a performance shortfall existed. To the credit of all stakeholders, a ‘Standstill Deed’ enabled the Commonwealth to accept the aircraft ‘as is’ and allow further development and training , therefore minimising further delay as much as possible.
This was good news for No.2 Squadron - no longer did they gaze out of their headquarters building at an empty flight line - and two aircraft were provisionally accepted in November 2009. Although Boeing retained ownership (providing flight and mission commanders each flight) and still US-registered, the aircraft provided valuable experience to RAAF crews whilst an incremental capability increase was being developed.
Prior to this the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Labs was engaged for research into the radar technology, to determine if the MESA system would be capable of delivering a viable operational capability. Happily the results showed the basic technology was sound and that MESA had a growth path. Since then, the Commonwealth, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, MIT Lincoln Labs and various US Government agencies have been working on this incremental path to a desirable outcome.
Work progressed to the extend where the aircraft at Williamtown were able to be formally brought on charge in May last year, in an initial configuration, and have since been joined by two more. Of the two remaining, one is undergoing conversion at Boeing Defence Australia’s Amberley facility and the other remains in Seattle to support ongoing development work. Three operational crews have now been trained.
While progress is good news for all stakeholders, technical challenges still remain and there will be some radar shortfall - compared with the original contract - even in the final configuration. The Electronic Support Measures (ESM) and Electronic Warfare Self Protection (EWSP) systems are also behind schedule and software issues have taken longer to understand and rectify than desired. Final Operating Capability is now planned for December 2012, meaning the programme is some four years behind the original schedule.
Head of the Wedgetail programme for the Defence Materiel Organization, Air Vice Marshal Chris Deeble told APDR that there has been significant progress to date and he is cautiously optimistic for the future: “Last year was a pretty good one overall. Although I’m disappointed we didn’t get to final acceptance with the software and the ESM and EWSP - which was the hardware we were missing when we took the incremental delivery - I have to say that overall progress remains positive” he explained “We’re seeing more and more functionality and capability being delivered with every new software delivery”.
Negotiations for an extra software increment are currently underway, so it is not yet possible to say exactly when the final software load will occur. “We will probably move to another point of delivery in the March/April timeframe” said AVM Deeble, “That will include ostensibly all of the hardware in final configuration and we will get a software update at that time. We will then get further number of software updates throughout this year and we aim to get to the final configuration by the end of the year”.
Having four aircraft available is a win-win situation, as operational training generates a lot of knowledge and experience that can be driven back in to the development programme. “The key thing is we are continually delivering updated capability to allow training to be conducted, but also for Operational Test and Evaluation to be carried out” explained AVM Deeble “One of the key issues for me when I came on to the programme in 2006 was that there had been fairly significant schedule delays and I knew this technically complex capability wasn’t going to be delivered in a week – a highly developmental radar and an ESM system that was a significant modification of earlier systems – and as a consequence there was inherent technical risk, so the incremental delivery path has always been in my mind”.
This approach has allowed Air Force crews to operate the systems sooner than they would have if the Wedgetail package was ‘fixed’ before delivery. In some ways this experience has already seen a deviation from the original specifications, as some things that were considered important back when it was originally written in the 1990s are now not as relevant as the vastly increased utility potential of an electronically scanned radar becomes more understood.
As the key sensor, the MESA radar is still developmental and it has to be remembered that Australia is the first customer for such a capability, so much of this learning is being carried out during operational service.
Although the performance shortfall is a disappointment, AVM Deeble says much has been done, “We did have an agreement with Boeing where we accepted some level of performance shortfall, and we’ve engaged the DSTO, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, MIT Lincoln Labs and we have the support of some US Government agencies” he said “Over the last year we’ve been working very closely with them and we’ve been able to implement a number of radar fixes that will improve performance, and I’m confident that radar performance will definitely meet the operational need by the end of the year”.
Although MESA will not meet original specifications, the radar is enormously capable. Some aspirations for certain modes of the radar when the specification was drawn up have been overtaken by the utility inherent in the design. “We’ve had the opportunity to use the radar under operational conditions on three or four occasions now and we’re finding that some of those (original) scenarios may not actually be the way that we want this aircraft to operate” AVM Deeble asserts “One of the things we’ve achieved over the last couple of years through developmental and formal acceptance testing is a very good understanding of the baseline of radar performance as it currently stands. This has helped us focus on those areas that we really should be looking at getting performance improvements in, rather than getting to specification. We are now actually getting better operational utility than we originally conceived”.
One of the earlier problems has been the issue of system stability, which required a frequent ‘reboot’ when used in certain modes (‘revisiting’ a target would often cause the picture to freeze). AVM Deeble now says that this has been satisfactorily progressed and system stability now exceeds mission duration, “It’s a bit like peeling an onion, when you remove one layer you are exposed to the one beneath” he explained “I’m comfortable with where we are now, though there is more work to be done”
The Electronic Support Measures system on Wedgetail is a development of the Elta ALR-2001 system installed on the RAAF AP-3C Orion and adapted to the Wedgetail by BAE Systems Australia.
System integration has suffered major delays, due to the underestimation of the work scope by BAE Systems and Boeing. ‘Those issues have now been addressed, we’ve got ESM and we operated it during the recent RIMPAC exercise off Hawaii” he says “(but) we’re still resolving some of the finer grained aspects of the integration with the radar and other sensor data available to us from external sources and that work is ongoing this year. There are no significant technical issues that can’t be resolved; it’s just the time that it took to get there”.
The EWSP system has not suffered any major technical setbacks, but its integration has been delayed by the level of effort required on the ESM system. “I’m not concerned about EWSP and believe that we have a clear path forward to resolve the ESM issues” explains AVM Deeble “I think that, as a subsystem, it’s now quite mature, but we’ve got to look at how we integrate ESM into the tracker, with the radar returns and off-board data”. Though final capability is due to be certified at the end of 2011, he hopes to demonstrate its performance by mid-year.
The most recent opportunity to test Wedgetail in a high-level operational environment came during last years’ RIMPAC exercise, where the developmental aircraft based in Seattle participated in operations designed to support a fleet at sea.
Despite some problems, primarily with datalinks, the aircraft gained a good reputation and was requested to fly each day. “Towards the last couple of missions we were able to do some of the high end work, such as using the datalinks and employing the aircraft with fighter support. It was feeding the radar picture down to surface vessels and was very good in that regard” claims AVM Deeble “So we started to see the true potential of this capability and the radar performed very well”.
E-3 SENTRY COMPARISON
One of the problems laymen have understanding Wedgetail capabilities is information classification makes it difficult to establish a baseline with which to compare its performance.
The Boeing E-3 Sentry has been in service for many years and has been continually refined and improved over time. It is arguably at the pinnacle of non-AESA radar technology (it uses a conventional mechanically rotated array) and systems integration, so how does Wedgetail compare with this?
“I think that we’ll be as good as an E-3 in the not too distant future. There are also some capabilities inherent in Wedgetail that are better than an E-3 right now, but we’re not as mature because we haven’t been in operation as long” AVM Deeble asserts, “But within a couple of years there’s no doubt in my mind that our crews, the aircraft and the work we’ve done to improve it will give AWACS a run for its money, if not even be the AEW&C of choice. Once we get mature comms and datalinks, we’ll be (in some cases) better than an E-3 just based on the message set”.
AVM Deeble also dismisses suggestions that Wedgetail technology may be leapfrogged by other systems: “In the context of the MESA radar I don’t think that’s true at all, I think we’re leading the way for this level of technology and I think we have growth potential in the onboard systems and I don’t think the ESM will be leapfrogged either. I think we will set the benchmark for the next generation of AEW&C” he says.
“If I’ve learned one thing as a programme manager with Wedgetail, is that ‘it ain’t over until it’s over’ and it will remain technically complex until we get to that final point of acceptance, but I think we’ve come a long, long way” AVM Deeble summarises, “Especially when you look at the losses sustained by Boeing and the additional effort they’ve had to put in, along with Northrop Grumman and BAE, to get us there despite all the issues. One of my key goals was to continue to work with them despite all the commercial and technical issues they’ve confronted. By the end of this year I hope that we will be able to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them, being very proud of the product we’ve delivered and the operational capability that will be inherent in the ADF as a consequence”.
In it's recently-released fourth quarter financial results, Boeing Military Aircraft accepted a US$ 136 million charge for the resolution of ongoing technical performance issues with both Wedgetail and the Turkish 'Peace Eagle' programme. It attributes most of this to the requirement for additional software development.