The Wedgetail Enters into Service: The Aussies Build Out their 21st Century Airpower Capabilities


[slidepress gallery=’visiting-the-wedgetail-squadron-at-williamtown-raaf-base-australia’]

2014-03-07  The Aussies entered the 21st century with an aging Air Force.

The silver lining in that difficult position is that as the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) began to modernize, they could do so within the context of new 21st century capabilities.

The process really began by adding the C-17, which was at the end of its production run, but introduced a new lift capability for the force.  The reach, range and lift performance of the aircraft was important for the Afghan engagement, but will become a key asset as the Aussies focus primarily on Pacific defense.

The new A330MRTT tanker is the next piece.  The impact of the tanker, which is refuelable, will be significant in allowing the Aussies (individually and in terms of coalition contributions) to engage with extended reach, range and endurance in the Pacific.

And operating in extended reach and range to protect the borders of Australia, to operate within the strategic quadrangle from Japan, to Guam, to Singapore and to Australia, will be new aircraft able to manage the battlespace with 360 degree extended reach. 

The coming of the F-35 is a key piece of the re-set of airpower in Australia, but the air battle manger for the RAAF will be the new Wedgetail aircraft.

Second Line of Defense had a chance to visit the Wedgetail squadron at the Williamtown, RAAF base on March 6, 2014.  In a broad discussion with the squadron, the key elements of the contribution of Wedgetail and its projected evolution over time were discussed.

According to the Australian MOD website:

The first E-7A Wedgetail Airborne Early Warning & Control (AEW&C) aircraft was delivered to Australia in 2009 and began operations in 2010. A total of six aircraft have been delivered to Australia.

The E-7A Wedgetail represents an entirely new capability for the ADF, providing a platform that will gather information from a wide variety of sources, analyze it and distribute it to all friendly air and surface assets. AEW&C aircraft can control the tactical battle space, providing direction for fighter aircraft, surface combatants and land based elements, as well as supporting aircraft such as tankers and intelligence platforms.

Based on the 737-700 commercial airliner airframe, the E-7A features advanced multirole electronically scanned radar and 10 state-of-the-art mission crew consoles that are able to track airborne and maritime targets simultaneously.

AEW&C aircraft elevate the radar 10,000 meters above the earth’s surface so that the radar can ‘see’ everything out to a range of hundreds of kilometers. Low flying aircraft can no longer ‘sneak up’ by approaching below the radar horizon.

An E-7A Wedgetail cruising at an altitude of 10,000 meters can maintain surveillance over a surface area of 400,000 square kilometers at any given time. Over a 10-hour mission, the Wedgetail could cover over four million square kilometers.

The E-7A Wedgetail is therefore a major new capability for the Australian Defense Force, which will significantly multiply the effectiveness of our existing Navy, Army, Air Force and Coastwatch, and help Australia maintain a capability edge well into the future. The E-7A Wedgetail is truly the “Eyes of the Nation”.

The E-7A Wedgetail aircraft are operated by No 2 Squadron from RAAF Base Williamtown, near Newcastle.

 Initial Operational Capability for the E-7A Wedgetail platform was announced in November 2012, and Final Operational Capability for the Wedgetail fleet is planned for late 2013.

It is clear that this is a new capability for Australia. And the squadron, which has a distinguished combat record, is approaching the aircraft with a sense of enthusiasm, adventure and willingness to explore new ways it might be used. The backgrounds of the squadron are diverse with navy and air force operators mixed in, and with a wide range of experience in airborne surveillance and battle management, including several years of operational experience with the RAF on the AWACS.

For an American who grew up from the 1950s and is used to the US introducing new systems first and then allies following, the Wedgetail is a whole new experience. When you visit Australia you get to see the E-10 we did not buy (Wedgetail) nor the A330MRTT tanker which we did not buy either.

This puts the Aussies in a rather odd situation whereby they are at the leading edge of 21st century changes, coupled with working with the USAF main contribution to this effort, the F-22.  

What is the current state of play with regard to the Wedgetail?

According to the Squadron Commander, the system is “on the books” and ready to go to serve Australian needs and to contribute to coalition defense.

The Squadron Commander highlighted that the message going forward with the squadron was three fold: grow, integrate and prepare.  Growth meant simply to fill out the squadron and enhance its operational capabilities.  Integrate meant to build the squadron’s ability to work within the battlespace, to work effectively with the other Aussie forces and with coalition partners.  Prepare for the system will always be evolving.

The always evolving part of it is not widely appreciated. 

This is a software upgradeable aircraft with a defined launch point (IOC) but no fixed end point (FOC).  The system will always be evolving and growing as the software code gets rewritten to reflect events and demands from the squadron.

The squadron works through its experience and shapes change orders which get sent to the procurement authorities to sort out priorities for the next round of upgrading the aircraft.

The difference between older and such a new system was outlined by one participant in the roundtable as follows:

“We have in the same time frame bought a CRC system full up which will look pretty much like it is in 20 years; with Wedgetail it will look nothing like it does now in 20 years.”

The Aussies have named their tanker squadron the Dragons, so here we see at No. 2 squadron the technology Maoists focusing on “continuous revolution” provided for a software upgradeable aircraft.  With the coming of the F-35, which is also a software upgradeable aircraft, the Aussies are getting real operational experience with software upgradeability with the Wedgetail squadron. 

And make no mistake: this is not simply a new form of AWACS.  The AWACS is pushing the upper limit of what it can do.  The MESA radar on the Wedgetail is a whole other animal, able to reshape what a battle management radar can do over time in working with new aviation assets.

The Wedgetail versus the AWACS also allows the system to become operational in flight significantly faster. And the Aussies operate the aircraft with no technicians aboard which means that with smaller staff they can get significant results within the operational envelope.

There are other nations operating Wedgetail, namely South Korea and Turkey.  And the squadron will operate later this year with both countries.  But US ITAR restrictions limit the under the hood cross-learning available from nations working the same aircraft, a restriction which may make no sense when South Korea and Australia will operate more and more together within the strategic quadrangle.

Coalition exercises are seen as a key venue for evolving the capabilities of the Wedgetail over time. 

And indeed, this has already proven to be the case.

According to participants in the squadron roundtable, when Wedgetail came to its first Red Flag exercise it was the new boy on the block and partners treated them understandably with kid gloves.  But this was in the midst of sequestration so the US was reducing flying time for the AWACS and the Wedgetail immediately filled in and began to do coalition C2 for the exercise. 

The Aussie Wedgetail is a player in a 21st century aerospace combat cloud for the Pacific.  Royal Australian Air Force personnel prepare the E-7A Wedgetail for a Red Flag exercise, June 11, 2012.  Credit: Joint Base Elemendorft-Richardson. 6/11/12
The Aussie Wedgetail is a player in a 21st century aerospace combat cloud for the Pacific. Royal Australian Air Force personnel prepare the E-7A Wedgetail for a Red Flag exercise, June 11, 2012. Credit: Joint Base Elemendorft-Richardson. 6/11/12

But fast forward to this year’s Red Flag Nellis exercise and the Wedgetail was an accepted partner and operated both day and night in working on coalition operations.

As one participant said: “In a very short period of time, the system has evolved to take on greater responsibilities.  And mastering an evolutionary process is what we are positioning ourselves in the squadron both with regard to our own and coalition forces.”

Another participant noted that “because of the growth potential of the system in response to operational realities, we do not need to waste resources on redesigning the system prior to new capabilities showing up.  We are a network management system so a key driver of the evolution will clearly be other assets emerging and then our working out with the new system our next code rewrite.”

A case in point is the coming of Aegis to the destroyer fleet and the new amphibious ships as well with their C2 systems. 

And a coalition opportunity could well be the coming of the USS America, a new type of large deck amphib, to the Pacific later this year, which could provide an opportunity for cross learning as well.

And the coming of the F-35 to the Australian force will generate its own challenges.  The Wedgetail will then have to work with F-35s and legacy aircraft to shape the operational battlespace, but in situation where the F-35s will not operate at all like 4th generation aircraft.

Not surprisingly, the squadron is already working on the way ahead. 

“With fourth generation aircraft, your role is to shape the strike mission and to help coordinate an effective operation.  The F-35 is individually its own little battle manager and the challenge then is to provide a broader area management role.  And the transition between the two or put another way the management of the two capabilities within a single air campaign will be a significant part of the transitional challenge we will face in the decade ahead.”

The challenge transition will not need to wait for the coming of the F-35 to Australia for the Wedgetail is already working with the F-22s, certainly within the Red Flag and other coalition exercises.

This Wedgetail experience also highlights the coming impact of the F-35 in another way. 

Coalition partners will use the F-35 in different ways, and exercises will allow the US to learn from partners about how to evolve 21st century air operations.

For a kid that grew up in the 1950s, this is clearly a new century.

Background: The MESA Radar 

As the designer of the system, Northrop Grumman, has put it about the MESA radar:

Legacy AEW systems have higher drag antenna configurations and are limited by mechanical scan rates of 10 to 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.

MESA’s radar/IFF system is powered by 288 high-power T/R (transmit/receive) modules driving two side arrays and a “top hat” array. Each 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. MESA’s reliability is higher than AEW systems with separate IFF and radar systems due to fewer parts and shared system hardware between functions.

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. Additionally, L-band provides better detection in rain than higher frequency AEW radars as well as longer range detection of smaller targets.

MESA provides wide area surveillance of greater than 340,000 square miles at rates exceeding 30,000 square miles per second for a typical 10-second scan rate. Since scan rates are variable and sectors selectable, other coverage rates, ranges and priorities are programmable by mission commanders.  Four-dimensional processing, with monopulse angle processing, provides accurate range, azimuth and elevation locations. Doppler processing resolves closely spaced targets in formations.

MESA Radar

In a video produced by Northrop Grumman prior to the delivery of the Wedgetail to the RAAF, the basic approach of a MESA radar is explained:

And the following video shows the Wedgetail being assembled in fast forward:

The photos at the beginning of the article were shot during the visit on February 6, 2014 and show a Wedgetail being worked on in a maintenance hanger and are credited to Second Line of Defense.

The engines have proven so reliable that there is an old F-111 engine in the hanger to give the new engine maintainers enough work for their qualifications.