One of the more complex and fraught Defence acquisitions of recent times has been the purchase of six ‘Wedgetail’ airborne early warning & control (AEW&C) aircraft from Boeing.
8th Apr 2013
Byline: Kym Bergmann / Canberra
One of the more complex and fraught Defence acquisitions of recent times has been the purchase of six ‘Wedgetail’ airborne early warning & control (AEW&C) aircraft from Boeing. When the competition began in earnest for AIR 5077 in the mid-1990s, at that time all three bidders offered developmental systems because no existing platform came close to meeting the extremely demanding requirements of the RAAF.
At first the program seemed to be going well, but then experienced a major hiatus in 2006 – which caused many observers to wonder whether Australia had once again made a major error of judgment in being the lead customer for such an ambitious piece of technology. However, the benefits of going down this high-risk path are now becoming evident – even though the program is years behind its original schedule.
The situation today
Updating the program, AVM Chris Deeble explained that Initial Operational Capability (IOC) for the six E-7A ‘Wedgetail’ aircraft was declared by the Chief of the Air Force in mid-November 2012. Subsequently RAAF took final acceptance of all of the remaining components of the capability – the aircraft and all of the ground support elements – before the end of the year. In essence, this marked the end of the role of the Defence Materiel Organisation in the delivery phase of the project.
Additionally the aircraft have received their Australian military type certification and service release, which AVM Deeble describes as an important precursor to the declaration of IOC. The last step in the process will be when Full Operational Capability (FOC) is declared – something that is expected to occur in late 2014. This has been the subject of negotiations with prime contractor Boeing with some extra work required – which is now in train.
All six aircraft have been conducting operations since April 2010, with certification and developmental work going on in parallel. ‘Wedgetails’ have now participated in a number of major exercises, including COPE NORTH (Guam); RIMPAC (Hawaii) and two RED FLAGs (Alaska & Nellis), as well as flying numerous domestic missions – especially over northern Australia. AVM Deeble describes all of these as “high end” exercises that have been used to exercise the full capabilities of the aircraft. These Operational Test & Evaluation (OT&E) activities have allowed the RAAF to better understand some further work that is required, such as some further software development for the radar, as well as mission computing and the electronic support measures (ESM) system.
The aircraft are all being flown at a similar rate of effort to spread the workload as evenly as possible. At any given time, one of the aircraft will be in some form of intermediate or deeper level maintenance. Of the remaining five another one is likely to be undergoing some form of operational testing or might be experiencing some form of unserviceability – as happens with any aircraft fleet.
While participating in multinational exercises, the RAAF has been receiving very positive feedback about the performance of the aircraft – which is not only for the hardware itself, but also the crews and ground support. At COPE NORTH last year, the ‘Wedgetail’ impressed a number of observers, including the Chief of Japan’s Self Defence Air Force – who during a subsequent visit to Australia expressed great interest in the capability. During RED FLAG 2012 in Alaska, the F-22 squadron commander said that the ‘Wedgetail’ had provided the best controlling that he had ever seen – and this was even before IOC had been declared.
At the very recent RED FLAG based at Nellis the ‘Wedgetail’ has a achieved a remarkable 100% mission availability – a feat considered nearly impossible for old generation AEW&C aircraft. These have availability rates typically in the 30% - 40% range, giving an indication of how well the Australian aircraft are performing. As a consequence, the ‘Wedgetail’ was given additional tasks during the exercise to take advantage of its reliability. AVM Deeble commented that achieving this level of performance from what is a highly developmental system “augurs very, very well for the future – particularly considering the amount of growth potential in the system”.
One of the capability benefits of the aircraft is not only being able to detect and track a large number of targets at long range, but to exchange data with other assets by LINK 16. This has been one of the troublesome parts of the project, but which is now beginning to live up to expectations. To be able to be able to compile a complete air picture it is preferable to use as many sources of data as possible – and to achieve this the ‘Wedgetails’ have been working with ‘Classic’ Hornets; the newer Super Hornets; and the ‘Vigilare’ ground based air control system.
On overseas deployments they have been working with a variety of international partners, especially from the US. This has meant that the ‘Wedgetail’ LINK 16 capabilities are amongst the most advanced in the world. What makes the Australian system so effective compared with others is not only its ability to fuse radar and ESM data, but also its ability to accept data from sources such as LINK 16 and integrated broadcast systems and fuse all of that into a coherent picture. This allows the aircraft to push back out a much richer tactical picture than would ever have been possible with earlier generation platforms.
Role of Northrop Grumman
The principal senor of the aircraft is its phased array radar. APDR asked Northrop Grumman’s Paul Kalafos, Jr, Vice President of Northrop Grumman's Surveillance Systems business area to describe the advantages of this type of radar over mechanically scanned systems:
“Northrop Grumman’s Multi-function Electronically Scanned Array (MESA) radar enables an all-weather command, control and communications management capability on the Boeing 737 Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) aircraft, providing long-range airborne surveillance, robust Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) detection, and maritime surveillance —all in a modern integrated system.
“Based on more than 40 years of airborne surveillance radar expertise, Northrop Grumman designed a three-aperture active electronically scanned array radar in a sleek dorsal mount, providing 360-degree operation with low aircraft drag. Rotodome AEW systems have higher drag antenna configurations and are limited by mechanical scan rates of 10-12 seconds. In contrast, the MESA radar has variable scan rates and instantaneous target revisit rates to satisfy diverse mission priorities. Battle managers can assign multiple emphasis sectors with extended range and update rates while maintaining a 360-degree background surveillance picture.
“Each MESA array has a large aperture for high gain and directivity of the radar and IFF beams. The “top hat” provides fore/aft coverage for full 360-degree surveillance coverage. This configuration provides radar target tracks through aircraft turns and maneuvers. MESA is designed to operate with graceful degradation, extending available operating hours for both radar and IFF.
“Operating at L-band enables long range air and maritime search/track and IFF—all in one multifunction aperture system. IFF responses can exceed radar detections, providing cooperative target detections and situational assessments before targets penetrate radar surveillance coverage. L-band provides better detection in rain than higher frequency AEW radars as well as longer-range detection of smaller size targets.
“Leveraging the interleaved electronic scanning features, a combined air and sea picture is rapidly developed. System operators and battle commanders now have the flexibility to orchestrate air operations and defensive measures with a radar/IFF system easily commanded via the system console.”
Discussing the complexity of the program and some of the issues encountered, Mr Kalafos commented:
“As mentioned in previous public disclosures by both Boeing and Northrop Grumman, we experienced cost growth and schedule delays due to early technical issues on the Wedgetail program. Any complex system that pushes the technology envelope is likely to experience some development issues. However, we overcame these issues. From the time the system entered initial operations, Northrop Grumman was able to get invaluable operator feedback on the system. We also developed a cooperative program with the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) to address desired improvements. The result has been a series of planned upgrades that have significantly expanded the system’s initial capabilities and have the promise of continuing to do so for years to come.”
Boeing in transition.
Boeing / Wedgetail.
Prime contractor Boeing is now moving from its role as the developer and integrator of the ‘Wedgetail’ system to being its in-country supporter – not that work on the aircraft has come to an end. Fundamentally, this involves the transfer of responsibility from Seattle in the United States to RAAF Base Williamtown in New South Wales. Most importantly, this has meant a process of technology transfer and expertise in the form of a highly skilled Australian expats moving from North America to Australia.
Speaking to Boeing Australia’s In-Service Support program manager Fred Bruner and also to Dan Jaspering, Boeing Airborne Surveillance, Command and Control program manager, this rebalancing is well under way. This has been done in an incremental way and the ‘Wedgetail’ support centre is co-located with the RAAF team on base – literally the teams are so integrated that staff from industry and the Commonwealth have adjacent offices. There are approximately 160 employees in the centre, not only from Boeing but also major subcontractors Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems Australia. Boeing also has a smaller support team at RAAF Base Amberley in Queensland, who are responsible for deeper maintenance of the aircraft.
Boeing was awarded an initial 5-year support contract in January 2010 and the company believes that at a mid-way point it is going very well. This view seems to be shared by the Defence Materiel Organisation. The arrangement is in the form of a cooperative relationship with 42 Wing – the operators of the aircraft – the DMO and industry. This takes the form of a joint management framework that supervises the cost plus, fixed fee contract. The company believes that this approach is proving to be very successful and is setting a new benchmark in the way support arrangements can be conducted.
‘Wedgetail’ is another example of how Defence is often able to trade off time for cost. In other words, the Australian taxpayer is no worse off – or only very slightly – in financial terms, but the capability is several years late. This again raises the question of whether Defence is too aggressive in setting schedules for complex projects and companies – in a highly competitive market – often commit to unrealistic timetables to secure the business in the first place.
The problem is compounded by the fact that Defence generally has a poor record of adhering to its own timetables for milestones such as the release of RFIs, RFTs and – especially – the generally unpredictable amount of time taken for evaluations. Add to this the additional uncertainties generated by the political decision making process and companies attempting to stick to any sort of meaningful plan are often left frustrated and out of pocket. For their part, companies need to understand that when Defence signs a contract, they expect adherence to all of it - not just the easy parts.
Having said all of that, ‘Wedgetail’ now looks to be a splendid system that will make a major contribution to ADF capabilities for decades to come. No one wants to say this on the record, but it might well be the finest AEW&C system in the world – perhaps not today but almost certainly by the time Full Operational Capability is achieved. This is a credit to RAAF themselves, the DMO and especially the principle team members that have stuck with this for so long: Boeing, Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems.