Aurora (Colorado, USA): For nearly 50 years, the E-3 Sentry aircraft served as the cornerstone of the US Air Force’s ability to keep eyes in the sky. In the waning years of the Cold War, and throughout America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the airborne warning and control system aircraft, or AWACS, and its trademark 30-foot rotating radar dome swept battlefields and potential conflict zones around the world.
Boeing’s E-7A, the aircraft set to replace the E-3 AWACS, will give the Air Force a different way of looking at battlefields. Instead of periodic rotational sweeps, the E-7′s multirole electronically scanned array long-range sensor will allow operators to fix its gaze on a target — or several of them.
“It essentially comes down to the ability to stare at something,” Carson Elmore, who runs business development for Boeing’s international E-7 program, said in a briefing on the E-7′s capabilities at the Air and Space Forces Association’s AFA Warfare Symposium in Colorado.
And top Air Force generals aren’t hiding how eager they are to have the E-7 and its new capabilities at their disposal.
“I want them very quickly,” Pacific Air Forces commander Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach said in a roundtable with reporters at the conference that day.
The Air Force in February awarded Boeing a $1.2 billion contract to begin work on the E-7 fleet; the service plans to reach 26 aircraft by 2032. The air forces of Australia, Turkey and South Korea are already flying E-7s, and production is underway for a British fleet. The Royal Australian Air Force calls its E-7 the Wedgetail, but the US has not decided on its own E-7′s name.
The US Air Force plans to first buy two rapid prototype E-7s, with the first to be fielded in 2027, and then make a production decision on the remainder of the fleet in 2025. The service has repeatedly said its AWACS capabilities — which were state of the art when first fielded in the late 1970s — are out of date and not advanced enough for future conflicts.
The US Air Force is retiring its fleet of AWACS, which once numbered 31, and plans to be down to 16 by the end of fiscal 2024.
The biggest differences between the AWACS and the upcoming E-7 will be how the sensors work and the views they provide, said Rod Meranda, Boeing’s head of business development for its domestic and international E-7 program.
The MESA will also be able to look in several directions at once, allowing the operators at the E-7′s array of 10 stations to simultaneously monitor multiple angles. Elmore said this will allow the aircraft to considerably narrow down the possible location of an aircraft, resulting in greatly improved situational awareness.
E-7 controllers will also be able to set its array to conduct periodic sweeps in several directions, Elmore said. For instance, the controllers could set the MESA to watch targets on one side most of the time, and every so often look in the other direction “to make sure somebody’s not sneaking up on me,” he explained.
Like the AWACS, the E-7 will also be able to listen for radar and other electronic signals a potential enemy aircraft is emitting, then locate the plane and check the signal against a database to help identify the type of plane.
The E-7 will also require a smaller crew than the AWACS thanks to newer technologies, Elmore said. The Air Force’s AWACS fact sheet said it requires a flight crew of four, plus a mission crew of 13-19 specialists.
Boeing said the E-7 can get the job done with just a pilot and co-pilot, and a variable number of mission operators running the bank of 10 stations lining the aircraft, depending on mission requirements. That crew could be as small as three if a flight only needs one mission operator to use a scope.
And, for example, if an E-7 carries out a lengthy and complex mission — AWACS operations sometimes exceeded 24 hours — it can seat up to 21 people: the pilot and co-pilot, 10 mission operators at the stations, and nine more in reserve to rotate in and out. The cockpit also has a jump seat for a third pilot.
Each station — six on the port side, four on starboard — has two displays operators can use to spread out radar signals, and chat windows used to coordinate with other aircraft, the air operations centre on the ground or other teammates elsewhere. The operators also have intercoms, and the plane’s radios will be able to use more capable Mobile User Objective System satellite communications.
Although the E-7 has several features that differ from the AWACS, Elmore said Boeing kept the stations and how they are controlled similar to what E-3 operators are used to. “We wanted to have a very short training and transition time frame for the operators when they get out of the E-3 and they come to the E-7,” he noted.
The E-7 also has a new situational awareness feature, which the AWACS lacks, called the flight deck tactical display, which alerts the pilot to what’s going on in the battlespace and what may be flying nearby. Elmore said the display is tied into the E-7′s electronic warfare self-protection capabilities, but would not go into more detail.
This display, which is mounted near the pilot’s knee, means the E-7 does not need a crew member found on the E-3 — the AWACS monitor — Elmore said. AWACS monitors fly in the back of the aircraft and keep in touch with their pilots to update them on what is in the area.
“All of the tracking on AWACS, you had a whole set of people who worked on tracking and identifying” other aircraft in the area, Elmore said. “We’ve eliminated them because the machine does it.”
Meranda said that when the Air Force’s E-7 program kicks into gear, which could happen later this decade, Boeing wants to build four per year.
To make an E-7 for the Air Force, Boeing will first buy a 737 tube from Spirit AeroSystems in Wichita, Kansas, and bring it to its factory in Renton, Washington. Once the tube is on the factory’s “line 3,” which is dedicated to military work and is where Boeing builds P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol planes, Boeing will start beefing it up so it can handle the extra wear and tear military flying dishes out.
The central feature of the E-7 is its blade-like MESA sensor, nicknamed the “top hat.” Installing it requires a significant amount of work, and Meranda said Boeing will cut the 737 plane in half to reinforce the structure to bear the weight of the MESA sensor.
The company will also install wings typically used on 737-800s, which Elmore said will give the E-7 greater lift capability, as well as stronger landing gear, among other modifications.
The US version of the E-7 will be similar to the three Boeing is now building for the UK, particularly in terms of the air frame, sensor and mission equipment, though the US Air Force made unique requests Boeing declined to specify.
Boeing wants the E-7 fleet to be largely interoperable so it’s easier and cheaper to upgrade different nations’ fleets. Meranda said the E-7 will use a suite of open-mission systems software to simplify upgrades; the US Air Force will test the technology in 2025.
The entire acquisition process for an E-7, including testing and Federal Aviation Administration certifications that occur after construction and modification, could take five years, but Boeing wants to get it done sooner.
The company said that advance procurement funding will lower the risk for businesses involved in building the E-7. For Boeing, that funding will allow it to start building the commercial plane earlier, Meranda said. And advance funding allows Northrop Grumman engineers and production facilities to start working on the planes’ sensors, he added.