E-2D Advanced Hawkeyes conduct a test flight near St. Augustine, Fla. (Northrop Grumman)
As troops entered Iraq in 2003 to begin their quest to oust Saddam Hussein, they encountered a problem: Despite the massive coalition airpower available, the critical connection between the troops on the ground and forces in the air was missing.
“The first few days of the Operation Iraqi Freedom kickoff, there were just a ton of assets flying: bomb-droppers that had ordnance, had fuel, all in limited and varying degrees, and ground forces advancing rapidly that needed air support,” said Capt. Donald May, a U.S. Navy E-2 Hawkeye pilot and the E-2C/D requirements officer at the Pentagon. “There was a missing link in connecting what forces on the ground needed and what capability [the coalition] had.”
The E-2Cs were pressed into service over land as a sort of headquarters in the sky to link troops to the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) or strike aircraft they needed. The E-2s supplemented the Air Force’s E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System planes and the E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System aircraft, which detected and tracked moving ground vehicles.
“It was the perfect role for the E-2C to jump into,” May said. “The power of the plane is in the air crew and the ability to command and control, see the battlespace in the full 360 degrees and get the mission accomplished.”
But there was a drawback to the E-2Cs. They were developed during the Cold War to scan the waters for enemy ships and provide sea-based command and control for a strike group. Their radars weren’t meant for missions over land, so they had a hard time picking out low-flying aircraft and missiles from the clutter caused by terrain and buildings. For the Navy, the experience with the E-2Cs was vindication of an effort then in its early stages to develop a radar that would be less susceptible to ground clutter.
That effort is about to come to fruition. Upgraded versions of the E-2Cs, called the E2-D Advanced Hawkeyes, are scheduled to begin flying the new radar operationally in 2014.
The same year as the run to Baghdad, the Navy awarded Northrop Grumman a contract to design the E-2D, and the Navy flew the aircraft for the first time in August 2007. The Navy accepted the delivery of the first E-2D in July 2010. The first test squadron is undergoing initial operational test and evaluation, which will wrap up later this year and pave the way for large-scale production of the aircraft.
When the first E-2D crew starts conducting missions as early as October 2014, the Navy hopes it will be able to improve on what the E-2C does now: patrolling the skies with information on what aircraft are available, where they are and what ordnance they are carrying. Today, troops who need close air support can call the E-2C’s crew through a special frequency to let them know, for example, that they’re under attack from enemy forces in armored vehicles. The Hawkeye crew can then direct the appropriate combat aircraft to assist the troops. E-2C air crews played a pivotal role in making sure the right data, coordinates, surveillance and other information made it to those who needed it and “profoundly turned around the whole war,” May said.
The efforts of the E-2C in overland missions showed the Navy just what utility such an aircraft and its crew can provide, which is why the service is in the midst of spending $17.5 billion on a fleet of 75 E-2D Advanced Hawkeyes that will possess radar better equipped for the overland environment. While the E-2D will not immediately replace the E-2C, the Navy does plan to phase out the E-2C fleet sometime in the 2020s, May said.
The E-2C proved to be a major asset in Iraq, but the Navy hopes the new E-2D radar will do an even better job in the highly cluttered overland environment.
“If we don’t connect the dots, all the bomb-droppers come back with all the bombs on their wings,” May said.
The E-2D’s Lockheed Martin-built APY-9 radar is “clutter-agnostic” compared with the mechanical version on the E-2C, May said, meaning that it can cut through the numerous signatures that show up on radar in overland and littoral environments to identify the real threats, primarily in the air. While high-flying aircraft are not difficult to track for the E-2C in any environment, low-flying aircraft are much more difficult to pick up with so much ground-based clutter in the field of view of the E-2’s crew.
The Navy is currently conducting flight tests for the E-2D. So far, manufacturer Northrop Grumman has built eight of them, which are now either in test squadrons or fleet replacement squadrons for training purposes.
Northrop Grumman deferred comment to the Navy.
The Navy hasn’t shied away from continuing to use the E-2C in that role in the many years since the initial invasion. Although the Navy designed the aircraft to be a blue-water, command-and-control asset, commanders in the field have used it much more in littoral and overland environments, May said.
Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst with the Teal Group, said the utility of the E-2 has proven itself a popular export product. France, Japan, Mexico, Singapore, Israel, Taiwan and Egypt all fly the E-2C, and the United Arab Emirates and India have expressed interest in the E-2D. Taiwan’s decision to acquire E-2s in 1995 was a particularly good one for the nation, Aboulafia said.
“That’s probably the quietest, least-remarked-upon, but greatest advancement to Taiwan’s military,” he said.
The E-2 has proven that even though it was born out of the Cold War era for a blue-water Navy, its capability is indispensable for modern navies, he argued.
“I can’t imagine a carrier battle group or any other kind of big Navy presence having much of a chance without it,” Aboulafia said. “Look at Britain. Back in the Falklands [War in 1982], that would’ve been over in five minutes with E-2s. ... No matter what you’re doing with the Navy, you need a system like this: littorals, power projection in big blue water, even peace-keeping, no-fly-zone enforcement.
“It just goes to show the broad utility of the antique Cold War systems you still have with relatively straightforward changes to software and hardware,” he continued. “[Today], you’re stuck with a lot of counterinsurgency equipment that’s useless, but ... big power equipment like [E-2] has very broad utility.”
And despite the recent overland missions, the E-2C still gets heavy use in the blue-water zones as well, May said.
“There is some, but limited, situational awareness until an E-2 gets out there with a combination of active and passive sensors and communications suites,” May said. “Anything in the air or on the surface of the ocean, we communicate back via voice and data link. We allow decision-makers to know what’s out there.”
Initially, the Navy will be supplementing — not replacing — the E-2C fleet with the E-2Ds. E-2Cs will continue to fly missions for a very long time, May said.
“E-2C will have a role as long as it’s in the fleet,” he said. “The E-2D will have a much more prominent role.”
One capability the E-2D crews will have at their disposal is the ability to conduct integrated air missile defense, which will make it an effective asset in defending the sea base. “That’s an area where E-2D brings out its capabilities in the fullest sense,” May said.
The aircraft will look nearly identical to the E-2C from the outside, but the radar will be miles ahead in terms of capability and the crew will be able to operate more efficiently, he added.
“The radar is the No. 1 capability enhancement,” he said. “My opinion is that the next-best capability enhancement is the crew of five: three naval flight officers running the weapon systems in back, and two pilots up front.”
While the E-2C also has a crew of five, the difference is that one of the pilots in an E-2D can operate as a tactical fourth operator, taking advantage of a digital glass cockpit to switch the display to a tactical one and contribute to the mission at hand.
“When we were up on station, we were usually shorthanded in an E-2C,” May said. “Now we’ll have a fourth operator, which is huge.”
The E-2D also will serve as the centerpiece of the Cooperative Engagement Capability, a sensor-netting system that allows ships and aircraft in a strike fighter group to pool their collective radar and sensor data together to create a detailed picture of the environment around them, sharing this information through secure frequencies. The Navy awarded Northrop Grumman an $8.8 million contract modification on April 24 for AN/SPQ-9B CEC interface kits and antenna group upgrade kits.
“It allows a vastly different set of options to disperse the forces by using the Cooperative Engagement Capability,” May said. “It allows a dispersion of forces and use of other tactics against the more stressing threats out there. The latest E-2C variants can and do use it, but [crews] will be able to fully use it once E-2D is there because its sensor will contribute in a much more profound way.”
Naval Air Systems Command said in a May 4 statement provided by spokeswoman Marcia Hart that the capability was progressing on schedule.
“Collaboration across program offices and with industry partners has resulted in an aggressive schedule to complete successful integration of the CEC system into the E-2D aircraft,” the statement reads.
NAVAIR said CEC will allow sensor data to not only flow freely between assets, but also extend the range at which a ship can engage hostile missiles to well beyond its own radar horizon.
“This provides CEC-equipped ships in the battle group the opportunity to significantly improve their ability to engage challenging threat missiles by giving each ship a common, accurate picture,” NAVAIR stated.
Four E-2D Advanced Hawkeyes are undergoing initial operational test and evaluation as part of Air Test and Evaluation Squadron One. The evaluation should wrap up in the fourth quarter of this fiscal year, according to the NAVAIR statement.
The most significant concern for the program has been its radar, which will be electronically scanning rather than mechanical, and has been less reliable than hoped in testing. E-2D is reporting an improved reliability rate of 71 hours for the radar, but that figure is still short of the 81 hours required prior to a full-rate production decision, which the program expects to achieve by December, according to a March report by the Government Accountability Office’s annual assessment of major projects. Prior to the start of the test and evaluation in February, program experts and aircrew from test and evaluation squadrons flew two E-2D aircraft at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland and Naval Base Ventura County in California. They observed radar and mission systems performance in both land and maritime environments, according to the NAVAIR statement. The E-2D test team collected data that will be critical to making the Advanced Hawkeye available once it arrives in the fleet.
However, Teal Group analyst Aboulafia said it shouldn’t be a major worry for the program.
“It’s a major change going from mechanical to an electronically scanned radar,” he said. “Will they get it right? Sure, they’ll get it right. It’s a matter of time.”
— Dan P. Taylor is managing editor of Inside the Navy.