From “Troubled” to Trailblazing Program: The Wedgetail and 21st Century Combat Innovation


2015-11-16 By Robbin Laird

The Wedgetail is part of the Royal Australian’s 21st century air power transformation effort and strategy.

It is the core air battle management platform in the RAAF and is often referred to as an AWACs, although it is not.

As the RAAF describes the Wedgetail:

The E-7A Wedgetail provides Australia with one of the most advanced air battlespace management capabilities in the world. 

The E-7A Wedgetail is based on a Boeing 737-700, with the addition of an advanced Multi-Role Electronically Scanned Array (MESA) radar and 10 mission crew consoles, to create one of the most advanced pieces of technology for the Australian Defence Force. 

Based at RAAF Base Williamtown, the six E-7A Wedgetails are capable of communicating with other aircraft and providing air control from the sky. They can cover four million square kilometres during a single 10 hour mission.

The E-7A Wedgetail represents an entirely new capability for the Australian Defence Force, providing an airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) platform that can gather information from a wide variety of sources, analyse it and distribute it to other air and surface assets. 

The E-7A Wedgetail 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 Wedgetail features advanced multi role electronically scanned radar and 10 state-of-the-art mission crew consoles that are able to track airborne and maritime targets simultaneously. 

The E-7A Wedgetail significantly multiplies the effectiveness of our existing Navy, Army and Air Force, and will help Australia maintain a capability edge well into the future. 

The E-7A Wedgetail has participated in Exercise Bersama Lima, Exercise Cope North, Exercise Red Flag, Exercise Pitch Black and is currently deployed on Operation OKRA. 

Final Operational Capability for the E-7A Wedgetail platform was announced in May 2015.

Although a good description of the platform, the underlying story of the approach to introduce the Wedgetail and then how the platform is being modernized highlights why the program is trailblazing in many ways.

When I visited 2nd Squadron during the first quarter of 2014, I was impressed with the enthusiasm and intelligence of the Squadron and their approach towards innovation.

But when I got back to Washington DC, the reaction to my experience was met with complete lack of interest or surprise.

As the editor of a leading defense magazine put it: “You mean the troubled program; I thought it had been cancelled.”

With a second trip to Australia under my belt this Summer and a chance to talk with the RAAF’s Surveillance and Response Group as well as Air Marshal Davies, Air Vice Marshal MacDonald and the recently retired Air Marshal Brown, I began to understand how the “troubled” program had not only been “salvaged” but how it was “salvaged” put in the trailblazing path.

The Wedgetail has brought to the fight, unique battle management capabilities.

The Wedgetail is operated by South Korea and Turkey as well, although the Aussies have developed the most advanced version, but the South Koreans refer to it as their first “fifth generation” platform.

To understand what they mean, one has to look at some of the Wedgetail’s core capabilities.

Most fundamentally, the Wedgetail does not operate like an AWACs.

The AWACs works in tracks directing the air battle but does so with a 360 degree rotating radar.

It is the hub of a hub and spoke air combat system.

With the coming of the fifth generation aircraft, there is a need for air battle management, but not of the hub and spoke kind.

And with the challenge of operating in the expanded battlespace, it is not simply a question of management of air assets, but management of the assets operating in the expanded battlespace, regardless if they are air, naval or ground.

The Wedgetail is a key step forward in shaping a 21st century or to use the South Korean characterization “a fifth generation” approach to battle management for evolving combat demands.

The Wedgetail provides for the key function of air traffic control; which will remain important in the 21st century battlespace.

But it is designed with the reach rather than range approach characteristic of fifth generation systems; the MESA radar can be dialed up in terms of energy and focused in terms of direction on priority scan areas.

As one Northrop Grumman engineer put it:

“There is a fundamental shift operationally in terms of how one uses the Wedgetail versus the AWACS.

You no longer are limited or defined by a 360 degree rotator.

You are able to configure how much power you want to put into your radar reach; it is configurable to the mission.

The integrated IFF and radar functionality also allows the system to reach much greater than other systems into the battlespace to shape greater situational awareness in the battlespace.

You can put the energy in the mission area where you have the highest priority.”

This allows much greater reach, and is also part of enhanced survivability as well.

This means as well that it can act on demands identified by deployed fifth generation and other aircraft with regard to the areas where extended reach and focus for surveillance needs to be directed.

With the first combat operations initiated in the Middle East, the Wedgetail squadron and the RAAF are evolving not only lessons learned, but shaping demands for the evolution of the software systems within the Wedgetail.

The Wedgetail is one of the first or the first software upgradeable aircraft and built so from the ground up.

Rather than requirements set by testers and acquisition officials, the warfighting community can shape a demand side driven set of desired changes, which is then worked out with the engineering side of the house, which includes a key partnership with Boeing and Northrop Grumman in shaping the doability of meeting the demands.

And as one Northrop Grumman engineer put it: “Working closely with the RAAF we can identify and develop a software response or upgrade and have it operational within six to twelve months thereafter.”

The Wedgetail program went from “troubled” to trailblazing by starting with a significant and decisive decision.

Instead of a long list of requirements which had to be met in order for the aircraft to be declared operational, a baseline was established after which the plane was put in the hands of the warfighters for training and preparing for operations.

Put bluntly, getting the platform into the hands of the warfighters early and then leveraging software upgradeability to shape a demand driven modernization strategy was the key foundation for moving ahead with a new 21st century capability.

This was not business as usual; but a whole new approach.

And in that sense it clearly is trailblazing, and has been a key part of inspiring the Plan Jericho approach to shaping a more innovative and integrated combat force moving ahead.

About five years ago, the baseline was frozen and the operational community brought into the process.

As Air Marshal (Retired) Brown described the approach:

Question: As Chief you decided to push your new aircraft – Wedgetail and the KC-30A – out to the force rather than waiting for the long list of tests to be complete. 


Air Marshal (Retired) Brown: Testers can only do so much. 

Once an aircraft is functional you need to get in the hand of the operators, pilots, crews and maintainers. They will determine what they think the real priorities for the evolution of the aircraft, rather than a test engineer or pilot. 

And you get the benefit of a superior platform from day one. 

When I became Deputy Chief of Air Force, the Wedgetail was being slowed down by the Kabuki effort to arrange specification lines for the aircraft. There was much hand-wringing amongst the program staff as to how it didn’t meet the specifications that we had put out. 

I said, “Let’s just give it to the operators.” 

And the advantage of basically giving the aircraft to the operators was what the test community and the engineers thought were real limitations the operators did not. Sometimes it took the operators two days to figure a work around. 

And the real advantage of the development was that they would prioritize what was really needed to be fixed from the operational point of view, not the testing point of view. 

In other words, you can spend a lot of time trying to get back to the original specifications. 

But when you actually give it to the operators they actually figure out what’s important or what isn’t important and then use the aircraft in real world operations.

The current Chief of Staff of the RAAF, Air Marshal Davies provided a very clear emphasis on the importance of demand driven modernization, rather than acquisitions driven by vast bureaucracies of requirements generators:

Question: And this would not have happened if the RAAF leadership had not decided to put the assets in the hands of the warfighter rather than waiting for some procurement official to declare IOC? 

Air Marshal Davies: That is exactly right. We put these assets in the hands of the warfighter to use and to determine what systems needed to be further developed in order to achieve the operational readiness, which the warfighters actually sought.

Both platforms took time to evolve to the point where we could effectively use them; but we put them into the hands of the warfighters more rapidly than traditional procurements approaches would allow. 

This is certainly part of what we mean by Plan Jericho – let the warfighters have a decisive say on what is needed from an operational standpoint, in terms of what the fleet can deliver rather than simply upgrading individual platforms organically.

And getting into operations is crucial in terms of operator confidence and coalition capabilities. 

With the Wedgetail deployed, allies got use to it and considered it a very reliable asset and the radar performance to be extraordinary. 

Without that operational confidence, the asset will not be used as often or as effectively. 

We see this as part of the Plan Jericho approach – get into the hands of the operators to determine what capabilities are best next and from which platform? 

What does a .02DB Delta on a radar range mean for an operator? 

I don’t know. 

Let’s give it to the operators and find out. 

And that’s what we’ve done. 

Establishing a baseline and then putting into the hands of the operators was crucial to getting the Wedgetail into combat; the modernization path is also trailblazing in that it relies on demand driven software modifications worked in close interaction with the industry team.

The software upgradeable side of the equation was highlighted during my visit to 2nd squadron.

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.”

A recent visit to Baltimore, Maryland with the Northrop Grumman team working on Wedgetail provided important information with regard to the way ahead with regard to working closely with the RAAF as well as working in support of the kind of integration the RAAF envisages as its brings its P-8 and new Triton RPA on line in the Australian Defence Force.

In discussions with Paul Kalafos, Vice President of Surveillance Systems at Northrop Grumman, and his Wedgetail team, the Wedgetail experience and working with the RAAF on shaping an integrated surveillance and C2 decision set was the focus of attention.

Northrop Grumman is teamed with Boeing as the prime contractor for Wedgetail.

The specially configured 737 has been acquired by the South Koreans (Project Peace Eye) and by Turkey (Project Peace Eagle).

The three nations have a similarly configured aircraft from a hardware point of view, but the software is configured differently for each.

“The Australians are the leading nation in terms of software; they have been investing in the software development with the industrial team and lead the way. They have been funding a number of updates.”

The RAAF is working closely with the industrial team in shaping upgrades, and this involves co-investment as well in the evolving capabilities.

The AEW&C Radar Capabilities Study (ARCS) is the model for shaping the evolutionary path forward, driven by operational experiences of the RAAF.

“We are getting significant feedback from the RAAF on deployment and requests to automate tasks where possible to enhanced the capability of the machine part of the man-machine relationship to shape a way ahead.

A lot of the input is through the ARCS working group, which is a collaborative study environment involving Boeing, Northrop Grumman, MIT/Lincoln Labs, Air Force Life Cycle Management Center (AFLCMC), CEA Technologies, Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO), Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), and the Common Wealth of Australia (CoA). Operational requirements come out of that process and shape the next increment of software development.”

“The ARCS is focused on problems and their resolutions. These are software updates. We get a software refresh out about once a year. Six months are spent doing the study to shape the plausible change; and the next six months are spent doing the integration and then getting it out the door. We shed the specs in favor of resolving problems, which the operational community identified. They can even write recommended change requests as well which provides part of the demand side process.”

This combat learning process informs software development; it is operational requirements driving the process informed by the art of the possible in the relatively near term.

An important upgrade for the Wedgetail was made in late 2014 prior to the deployment to the Middle East.

Prior to the initial deployment the E-7A was fitted with an IP chat capability, providing text rather than voice connectivity with the Combined Air Operations Centre in theater.

“The introduction of the IP chat capability into the aircraft was a real success story for us,” said Paul Carpenter, who was the commanding officer of the Wedgetail squadron and the detachment commander of the first rotation of Wedgetail personnel who returned to Australia in January (2015).

“That project looked like being many years in the future, but when we got notice of our Operation Okra deployment, our engineering department team got together with the wing, AEW&C System Project Office and Boeing Defence Australia and came up with a solution in a matter of weeks.”

And this is not simply about the Wedgetail as a platform; it is about shaping a more integrated force going forward.

Notably, the Aussies are acquiring the P-8 and the Triton RPA and the expectation – as expressed by the senior RAAF leaders, notably with the Surveillance Response Group – is that these capabilities will provide integration solutions.

And this means that software evolution on any one platform will be informed by developments on the others.

It is about cross-cutting or interactive modernization, not simply stovepiped upgrades of single platforms, or upgrades designed to make the platform more effective in doing its initial task, but rather upgrades informed by what the operational force most needs from a particular platform.

And when the bell first rung in combat, the Wedgetail and its combat team was ready.

As a piece by Brian Hartigan put it with regard to the telling moment:

010411ZOCT14 was the exact moment that the ‘shit got real’ for callsign Magpie 01 – Australia’s E-7A Wedgetail airborne early warning and control aircraft – as it crossed the official line that separates the air war against ISIS from the rest of the world. 

010411ZOCT14 …that’s 1 October 2014 at 4.11am UTC for those who need translation from the military date/time group – or 7.11am  local. 

That first mission was supposed to be a fairly easy-paced shadowing of an American E-3 Sentry on station over the northern-Iraqi Battle Management Area (BMA), to allow the mission crew (using their own onboard callsign “Outback”) to observe how the job was done in real time before taking on any live tasking. 

But when the ageing E-3 developed technical problems early in its mission, the Aussies stepped up and took over – throwing themselves and Australia’s newest and most advanced warplane headlong into the fight. 

Back at Air Task Group Headquarters, RAAF Squadron Leader Glenn ‘Fish’ Salmon heard the call, “All stations, g’day. Outback has the BMA” – and callsign Outback began to prove itself to its coalition partners. 

So successful has Australia’s Wedgetail now become that stories of American strike squadrons delaying or planning missions to coincide with Wedgetail flight times have filtered back to a proud Aussie hierarchy.

This is what shaping a baseline and getting the aircraft into the hands of the warfighters can deliver.

And a demand driven software development process, rather than hundreds of testers and bureaucratic overseers, can lead to the right kind of change in the rapid manner required for 21st century combat operations and experience.

There is a core lesson to be learned from the RAAF and the Aussies for those in Washington who love bureaucracy and oversight more than effective results.

The photos in the slideshow provide various shots of the Wedgetail.

The first photo shows he view from the cockpit of a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) E-7A Wedgetail Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft as it approaches a RAAF KC-30 Multirole Tanker Transport aircraft in the sky over northern Iraq. Clearly visible is the extended probe of the tanker’s refueling boom, which features the latest technology available for this difficult operation.


The second and third photos show  2 Squadron Wedgetail, Airborne Early Warning and Control Aircraft , AIR – AIR of first to arrive in Australia. Flying along coast of New South Wales from Williamtown Air Force Base then over Sydney Harbour.


The fourth and fifth photos show KC-30A MRTT and E-7A Wedgetail conducting Air to Air refueling testing in the airspace near RAAF Williamtown.


The sixth photo shows the Minister for Defence, The Hon Kevin Andrews MP (bottom of the stairs), and the Deputy Chief of Air Force, Air Vice-Marshal Gavin ‘Leo’ Davies, AO, CSC exit a No 2 Squadron E-7A Wedgetail aircraft after being shown the onboard Mission System.

The seventh photo shows Squadron Leader Andrew Boeree (foreground) shows the Minister for Defence, The Hon Kevin Andrews MP; the Member for Solomon, Mrs Natasha Griggs MP; and the Deputy Chief of Air Force, Air Vice-Marshal Gavin ‘Leo’ Davies, AO, CSC the onboard Mission System on the situational display in a No 2 Squadron E-7A Wedgetail aircraft.


The final photo shows  two F/A-18A Hornets and a E-7A Wedgetail aircraft fly over the Anzac Day 2015 National Ceremony at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra.