The Next Phase in Shaping an Integrated 21st Air Combat Force: The RAF Adds Wedgetail


By Robbin Laird

My visits to the UK and Australia over the past five years indicate growing working relationships between the two air forces but also that the significant rethink in Australia about shaping a fifth-generation combat force has clearly had its impact and resonance in the United Kingdom as well.

During a visit to RAF Waddington, I had a long conversation with Air Commodore Dean Andrew, we focused on a key aspect of change for the smaller Air Forces.  The opportunity offered by new software upgradeable aircraft to provide for a more integrated force which enhanced the overall combat force was a clear strategic opportunity and objective.

In our 2016 discussion at the base, we discussed shaping a way ahead for a more effective RAF.

He saw the F35 as an example of the paradigm shift in capability that the RAF will experience as the aircraft comes into service — particularly in terms of its ISR role, which complements its strike capabilities and can be leveraged for the ISTAR Force.

He adds that “the F35 will not be our platform, but it will have core ISTAR contributing capabilities that stretch the boundaries of integration even further for the transformed Force.

The overlapping Venn diagrams that we start to see across the RAF and Defence if we use an ISTAR ‘contributing capability’ lens get bigger and more complex as new and legacy platforms and services become integrated….”

“Treating each of the platform types as interconnected segments of an ISTAR capability Venn diagram will allow us to create the breadth of intelligence and understanding in the common operating picture that the Joint Force needs.

“Getting out of the platform stovepipe mentality will not be easy; it will be necessary to shape an overall operational approach to where the key operators of the platforms become plug and play elements in the overall ISTAR Force.”

We discussed as well how shaping an integrated fleet driven by software upgradeability could transform the modernization process as well.

“As the core platforms are replaced by an all software upgradeable fleet, the possibility could exist to put the platforms in competition with one another for modernization upgrades.

“Which upgrade gets the priority for which platform to make the greatest contribution to the integrated ISTAR capability are the sort of decisions that should lie with the ISTAR Force in the future – it is at Force level, not within individual programmes and projects that the overall capability benefit can be seen and prioritized.”

Since the time of our interview, the RAF has added the F-35, the P-8 and now is adding the Wedgetail, which provides a significant opportunity for platform integration and enhanced combat effectiveness.

The recent announcement of the addition of the Wedgetail opens up not only greater collaboration between the RAAF and the RAF, but opens the aperture as well for cross-platform integrated transformation.

I have visited the RAAF Wedgetail squadron many times and have watched as the system has migrated its capabilities through a software upgrade process and as the “radar” technology evolves into a tron warfare capability.  When combined with the F-35, this create a unique combat capability in a smaller force package for sure.

The upgrade process was highlighted during a visit to Williamtown and then with a follow up discussion in Baltimore with Northrop Grumman.

In an August 2016 interview, the process was discussed.

The difference between older and such a new system was outlined by one participant during the visit 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.”

This process of upgrading means that the software engineers work closely with the operators in shaping the evolution of the aircraft.

This is a very different approach from legacy systems.

As Paul Kalafos, Vice President of Surveillance Systems at Northrop Grumman has put it:

“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.”

Now the RAF has acted on what it has learned from the RAAF and the progress the RAAF has made with force integration and has committed to buying five Wedgetails for its combat fleet.

In an article by Andrew McLaughlin published in Australian Defence Business Review on March 23, 2019, the UK decision was discussed.

The UK Government has announced it will acquire five Boeing 737-700-based E-7A Airborne Early Warning & Control (AEW&C) aircraft.

The announcement was made on March 22 by Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson, and will see the RAF’s five E-3D Sentry AWACS systems replaced by the E-7A in the “early 2020s” under a US$1.98bn (A$2,8bn) deal. The E-7A is known as the Wedgetail in RAAF service, and is also operated by South Korea and Turkey.

“The E-7 provides a technological edge in an increasingly complex battlespace, allowing our pilots to track and target adversaries more effectively than ever. This deal also strengthens our vital military partnership with Australia,” Secretary Williamson said. “We will operate the same state-of-the-art F-35 jets and world-class Type-26 warships, and this announcement will help us work even more closely together to tackle the global threats we face.”

Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier, added, “Today’s announcement about the procurement of five E-7 ‘Wedgetail’ Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft is excellent news for both the RAF and wider Defence. This world-class capability, already proven with our Royal Australian Air Force partners, will significantly enhance our ability to deliver decisive airborne command and control and builds on the reputation of our E-3D Sentry Force.

“Along with Defence’s investment in other cutting-edge aircraft, E-7 will form a core element of the Next Generation Air Force, able to overcome both current and future complex threats.”

In order to free resources for a smooth transition to the E-7A, the RAF will retire one of its five operational E-3Ds immediately and consolidate its AEW&C operations. A sixth aircraft was retired several years ago and has been used as a spares hulk. An RAF rendering shows the E-7 flying over the Lincoln cathedral, which suggests the new aircraft will be based at nearby RAF Waddington, the RAF’s hub of Intelligence, Surveillance Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) operations.

The Wedgetail agreement has been mooted since July 2018, and gathered pace after Australia’s announcement to acquire the BAE Systems Type 26-based Hunter class frigate prompted talks of closer defence ties and the possibility of a free trade agreement with the UK, especially with the UK’s exit from Europe looming.

RAF personnel reportedly visited the RAAF E-7A’s home base of Williamtown last August for a full brief on the aircraft and the results of its many missions in recent years over Iraq and Syria in support of operations against ISIS.

But just what role Australia will have in the UK’s program is yet to be announced. Four of the RAAF’s five Wedgetails were converted from ‘green’ 737s to E-7s at Boeing’s RAAF Amberley facility, and a large proportion of the company’s corporate knowledge of the system is now centred there and at Williamtown. The E-7’s primary sensor, the multi-mode electronically scanned array (MESA) radar is supplied by Northrop Grumman.

But like Australia, the UK is likely to want to perform the conversions in-country using local industry, a fact Mr Williamson articulated last November, and the work will most likely be conducted by Marshall Aerospace & Defence Group in Cambridge. But there may be export opportunities for Australian companies which have provided components, sustainment and training on the Wedgetail program.

Rather than switching to a newer 737MAX or a P-8-common 737-800/900 hybrid airframe, like the RAAF aircraft, the RAF’s E-7As will be based on the 737-700IGW which features heavier gauge landing gear from the -800, and three auxiliary fuel tanks. This will ensure commonality with the RAAF’s aircraft, and will remove the risk of having to conduct an expensive and time-consuming flight test campaign of a new AEW&C configuration.

The RAF will also need to decide how best to refuel its Wedgetails in the air to extend its mission endurance beyond eight hours. The RAF’s 14 A330 MRTT Voyager tankers use only hose and drogue systems, whereas the E-7A has been configured for boom refuelling through its Universal Aerial Refuelling Receptacle Slipway Installation (UARRSI) receptacle above and behind the cockpit.

The featured photo from 2017 shows the Commander of the Strike and Reconnaissance Group, Air Commodore Craig Heap, CSC, stands with the British Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) Harriett Baldwin MP, in front of a No. 11 Squadron P-8A Poseidon during a visit to RAAF Base Edinburgh.

The Parliamentary Under Secretary of State and Minister for Defence Procurement, Harriet Baldwin MP, toured RAAF Base Edinburgh on November 10th to deepen her understanding of Australian capability on a recent visit to Australia.

As part of the demonstration, Minister Baldwin rode in a Thales Bushmaster and flew in an E-7 Wedgetail airborne early warning and control aircraft.

The tour came after meeting with Minister for Defence Industry, the Hon Christopher Pyne, MP in Adelaide to discuss the defence industry relationship between Australia and the United Kingdom.