19 May 22. In light of Ukraine and other events that force the need to rethink all aspects of UK defence capability and as a follow on from a piece that I wrote in September 2020 in relation to the ill thought through decision by the MOD to cut planned numbers of E-7 Wedgetail aircraft to be procured from five to three and my view of the crucial importance of the E-7 Wedgetail procurement, I offer you further serious thoughts in relation to why the MOD needs to reverse the decision it made back then.
The world has changed and we have undoubtedly entered yet another dangerous period when peace and stability is being seriously tested.
When I published UK Defence (372) back in September 2020 it was in response to a well-informed leak that suggested “Britain is set to slash its order of early-warning radar jets, redrawing a controversial contract awarded without competition in bid to save money MoD has drawn up plans to revise order for E-7 Wedgetail jets from five to three”.
This, as I said at the time, would appear to be far more than the MOD ‘testing the water’ with a ‘leaked’ suggestion’ about a possible cut in numbers. To that end, the MOD was very quick to respond saying that “officials had reopened discussions with Boeing about the £2.1bn programme over the summer with a view to achieving better value for money”. We all knew what that really meant – a cut in required capability that had been judged not on real underlying military requirement but purely cost.
To say anything other than that I was appalled at the content of what was actually a tweet by a then ‘Times’ journalist would be an understatement albeit that I already knew the probability of it coming.
Just as the subsequent and allow me to say, ill-thought out decision to scrap the UK’s fleet of C-130J medium lift aircraft has been, the decision to cut the numbers of E-7 aircraft represented yet another line of botched MOD thinking. Even back then I had viewed the notion of perhaps cutting numbers of planned RAF E-7 Wedgetail aircraft from five to four as being quite unacceptable let alone cutting them back to three and that this would undoubtedly have very dangerous potential connotations for future UK defence. I elaborate my reasoning for this further down this piece. Today, following on from a major change in the outlook for peace and stability, those words have double the meaning just as they also do in respect of plans to scrap the C-130J fleet in March next year.
The E-7 Wedgetail is the world’s most advanced, capable and reliable proven in-service military command and control aircraft capability. Sadly, as I have already alluded, the thought process behind cutting the number of E-7 aircraft is clearly based on the MOD saving on initial cost and through life operation.
Cutting the number of planned airframe numbers to just three when we are talking of highly specialist technology and a capability designed to rapidly identify airborne and maritime threats and guide RAF combat aircraft capability to specific targets and areas would, I said at the time, ne nothing short of fool’s gold. Today I would say that no time should be lost in reversing the decision.
The UK announced its intention to order five E-7 AEWACS (Airborne Early Warning & Control System) ‘Wedgetail’ aircraft from Boeing in March 2019. These, it said at the time, not only in order to replace the UK’s ageing fleet of Sentry E3-D AEW1 capability, originally seven aircraft, but to ensure that we had sufficient eye in the sky capability providing information that fast jet pilots and others need when they are deployed.
Of all the many deliberate ‘test the water’ and other deliberate ‘leaks’ that have emerged from the MOD over the past few months ahead of final so-called ‘strategically’ thought out and led future intentions that we anticipated emerging in the so-called ‘Integrated Review of Foreign Policy, Defence and Security’ I regard this one along with that of the planned premature scrapping of C-130J capability as being by far the most dangerous to have formally come out of the IR and that I personally regard as being little short of insanity.
I said this at the time as well. ‘Allow me to add that if anyone really is still under the illusion that the underlying intention behind the [planned] 2020 ‘Integrated Review’ process, one that we had been told would forge a soundly based long-term strategic decision making process of where the UK wanted to be in the future, where, why and what defence and security capability would be required to meet those ambitions, let them now understand that the reality is that what eventually emerges will primarily have been about further cutting of UK defence capability at a time when others, including our adversaries and would-be enemies, are increasing their expenditure on defence.
Having spent many years looking at the various options to modernise or replace existing UK Airborne Early Warning and Control capability the decision to procure five Boeing 737-700NG airframes and convert these to E-7 ‘Wedgetail’ capability in order to replace what had originally been 7 Boeing E3-D airframes constructed for the Royal Air Force in 1991 was very well received. E-7 Wedgetail as a capability was already proven in service with the Royal Australian Air Force. Just over a week ago the US Air Force announced that it would purchase Wedgetail as well although it noted that because the capability is based on the Boeing 737NG which is no longer in production and then refitting them for the purpose in the same way that the UK is doing with its E-7 Wedgetail aircraft at Birmingham Airport, it may take as long as five years to get them into service. The bottom line of that is that the UK needs to get its act together fast in reversing the cut decision and acquiring another two 737NG airframes.
The UK’s long history of failing to support and upgrade capability played out once again in its Sentry E3-D fleet which has now already been withdrawn and as the nation is forced to take a three-year gap in AWACS early warning capability.
For the record, while it is true that the MOD followed the US, Nato and France in upgrading their E3-D/E capability to an extent (all E3-D/E users engaged in the ‘Radar System Improvement Programme’ close to 25 years ago, having failed to upgrade internal capability let alone Sentry E3-D aircraft in order to meet required avionics and safety standards combined with the fact of maintenance and obsolescence costs increasing year by year and ever worsening rates of Sentry aircraft availability, these until withdrawal last year, often being down to one available aircraft – this meaning the UK could no longer meet Nato AWACS commitments, rather than risk what most estimated would be well in excess of £2 billion initial cost in upgrading existing near 30 year old airframes, the long delayed and procrastinated over decision to replace Sentry capability stood out in the end as being the best cost, risk and capability option.
The decision to cut the number of planned E-7 AEWACS aircraft from five to three means that, as seen from a potential mission availability standpoint, is nothing short of false economy – the point being that cutting the number of aircraft planned to be acquired from 5 to 3 will not provide the level of robust Air C2 and SA (Situational Awareness) capability that the UK needs.
Bad enough that we are taking a three year gap in capability and relying on NATO Sentry aircraft capability, but such is the seriousness of this issue that I would have to say that reducing the number of platforms from 5 to 3 aircraft has left the UK seriously wanting in respect of required Air C2 and SA capability requirement. Moreover, required depth servicing along with routine maintenance and training requirements would in my view preclude the Royal Air Force from its ability to provide assured 24/7 capability.
The original UK decision to acquire 5 x E-7 air platforms was a very well researched and that in comparison to the very high cost of Sentry E3-D operation. considerable operating savings will be available.
Ensuring that against any threat the UK can always retain control of the air is vital. AEWACS capability plays a very important role support the RAF fast jet community and as we have seen in recent weeks as more Russian Bear flights have threatened to intrude on UK airspace and that have seen an increasing number of Royal Air Force ‘Quick Reaction Alert’ Typhoon aircraft being scrambled from the temporary base at the Leuchars, the level of threat is increasing.
To be able to provide an absolute guarantee of 27/7 AEWACS capability requires that the UK has a minimum of 5 E-7 Wedgetail airframes. Reducing the number from to will have serious consequences in my view. Assured 24/7 AWACS capability is not just an option – it is an absolute necessity.
E-7 ‘Wedgetail’ is game changing capability designed to support 5th and 6th generation air warfare capability. Already proven in service with the Royal Australian Air Force which operates six ‘Wedgetail’ AWACS aircraft, E-7 based capability may properly be regarded in my view as being a 21st century solution to a 21st century problem providing ultimate Air C2 and SA capability for the air environment.
Fitted with modern e-scan radar, E7 ‘Wedgetail’ is far more capable than existing AWACS surveillance aircraft and fitted with an electronic array that allows energy to be directed either in a broad surveillance role, or in a narrower mode, brings a host of advantages that could also take it into the realms of targeting rather than just surveillance if required. This is, as I have said, game changing capability that will not only support 5th and 6th generation air warfare capability but provide the UK with reassurance of being able to see a potential enemy in the sky.
In what would undoubtedly be a complex and congested future war, once delegated it will most often be the airborne controllers that actually control the fight. I have written many times in the past that it is no use fighting an enemy that you cannot see. This, in my view, Control of the Air’ is always a non-discretionary task. Without it, more lives would undoubtedly be lost in the air, on land and at sea.
Importantly, the UK military requires a sovereign capability that provides AIR command and control (commonly known as Air C2) deemed necessary in order to allow fast jet capability to force entry into congested or unknown environments, to sense and to warn in complex environments and, when the rule of the air or the rule of law has been superseded by rogue actors, belligerence and conflict, to act accordingly.
While existing fast jet capability can provide intra formation situational awareness and provide localised air surveillance, it is the Air C2 platform that provides the very necessary broad awareness and establishment of friend and foe. In future decades planned UK satellite capability is important but this is still many years away.
Within the broader ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance Reconnaissance) remit Royal Air Force Sentry E-3D AEW capability has been providing core airborne early warning and airspace management competencies, deconflicting airspace and providing the ‘big picture, of situational awareness for RAF and Coalition aircraft and early warning of aircraft movements outside of Coalition control. But, having flown on several Sentry E3-D missions myself, the capability was tired and increasingly obsolescent. Replacement is and now should be a priority and not with three E-7 aircraft but five!
Originally a fleet of seven aircraft, former RAF Sentry E-3D capability (two of the remaining airframes have be sold to Chile and one has already gone to the US Navy for training purposes), Sentry E3-D has contributed to every major UK Air Operation since its introduction to service in 1991. They were designed to stay in RAF service until 2035, but lack of investment and a multitude of serious obsolescence issues, failure to meet a number of safety standards which led to a grounding of the whole fleet three years ago, combined with decades long failure by the MOD to invest ensuring that the computer based capability is up to date, took its toll.
Following the announcement in March 2019 that the UK would acquire five Boeing 737-700NG aircraft – it was only in May 2020 that Boeing awarded contracts to STS Aviation which is based at Birmingham Elmdon Airport, to convert all five 737NG aircraft acquired into Boeing E-7A Wedgetail aircraft for the RAF.
Whilst the MOD has subsequently said that Nato Sentry E3-A missions would now maintain the UK’s long-standing broader commitment to Nato Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) operations, given that the first E7 not due to be delivered to the Royal Air Force until 2023/4, UK AWACS capability is not exactly within our own hands.
The situation was made even worse by the similarly planned withdrawal of Raytheon ‘Sentinel’ capability next year – another crass decision by the MOD that will further reduce our competency and overall ISTAR capability.
True, we do now have all nine Boeing P8 Poseidon aircraft in service with the Royal Air Force but with these having completely different mission set of capability, that does not alter the vital requirement ensuring that the UK maintains a sufficient level of AEWACS capability.
I live in hope that the UK will follow the US example of realising the crucial value and importance of maintaining strong AWACS capability and that the MOD will now go back to its original plan of acquiring five E-7 Wedgetail aircraft.
CHW (London – 19th May 2022)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785