WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force conducted its first testing exercise with an E-7 Wedgetail, the Boeing Co. aircraft now used by Australia’s military that will begin to replace retiring E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System planes this decade.
The Wedgetail’s participation in the Black Flag exercise, held at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada from May 9th to 13th, could help the the service devise new tactics and capabilities for using it once it joins the service’s fleet.
Black Flag is a combined series of large-scale test events conducted by the 53rd Wing at Nellis that focuses on operational test and tactics development. Tests conducted there help the Air Force find new capabilities and ways for fighters, bombers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft and other programs to work together. This is done by realistically simulating combat with massed forces in a high-threat environment.
The Air Force said in a May 20 release that the Black Flag event is necessary to ensure all U.S. military services and allied partners would be ready to work together immediately if a conflict were to erupt.
“This integration is more than just [a] test,” Black Flag director Maj. Theodore Ellis said in a May 20 statement. “We are developing the backbone that will drive our tactics and communication capabilities in a wartime scenario. So if we get to night one [of a battle], we don’t have to educate everyone, the knowledge will already be out there and we can focus on the fight.”
The Wedgetail, now flown by the Royal Australian Air Force and other nations, provides command and control and ISR capabilities to help manage battlefields.
The RAAF owned and flew the Wedgetail that took part in Black Flag, the Air Force said. After that event, the RAAF then flew its E-7 to Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida to participate in the 53rd Wing’s Weapons System Evaluation Program-East, a joint event to evaluate how well a squadron can conduct air-to-air live fire missions.
The Air Force last month announced it had decided to replace part of its aging AWACS fleet with Wedgetails, ending a long period of speculation that the service would adopt the Boeing aircraft now flown by Australia and other nations. The first rapid prototype E-7 is expected to be delivered in fiscal 2027.
And the Air Force is working with its Australian counterparts in several areas to ease the transition period for adopting the Wedgetail. For example, Australia has volunteered to train American airmen on the E-7 early so they can start flying it as soon as possible upon delivery. Lt. Gen. David Nahom, the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for plans and programs, told lawmakers last week.
The Black Flag test event largely focused on making sure the technologies used for automated, long-range kill chains are working properly, the Air Force said.
It tested out two new data translation and routing tools, one dubbed Watchbox and the other TRAX, for Tactical Radio Application Extension, that sought to pass targeting data from the sensors to the airmen firing the weapon far more quickly than older systems by using automation.
“A single intelligence hit in a database during our weapons school integration phase normally could take 25 to 30 minutes before it is passed to a shooter on Link 16,” Maj. Ridge Flick, an Air University fellow assigned to the U.S. Air Force Warfare Center, said. “Now we’ve shortened the timeline through automated means to anywhere from 40 seconds to four minutes, and removed the errors associated with humans transposing information from one system to another.”
Flick and his team tested automated intelligence reporting with Watchbox, and then automatically passed the information on to six ground nodes and two Link 16 networks using TRAX, the Air Force said, proving these systems could significantly shorten the kill chains.
The Air Force said Black Flag successfully tested out a new concept for a mobile command and control, or C2, system that loaded off-the-shelf technology, such as an antenna, various radios, ruggedized computers and servers, into a sport utility vehicle.
This would be an advantage over the usual tactical C2 capabilities, which are made up of bulky and heavy pieces of older technology that are difficult to easily move, it said
“It’s inconspicuous, and if we needed to abandon the vehicle in a scenario, we could do so in less than 20 minutes with all our gear,” Maj. Paden Allen, commander of the 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron’s C2 division, which came up with the C2-in-an-SUV concept. “Through this innovative capability, we proved that we can set up shop anywhere with no setup time.”
The team carried out two missions using this tactical C2 concept to show it could be flexible and move quickly. At one point, an SUV was airlifted in a Marine Corps KC-130 to a dry lake bed in the Nevada Test and Training Range, to show how it could be deployed and extracted from an austere environment.
The Air Force said the tests showed the concept could be adapted to several other types of vehicles, to transmit higher classifications of data, and fold in emerging technologies, all of which would allow it to better integrate the concept with other forces.
Other aircraft taking part in Black Flag included RAAF F-35A Lightning IIs, U.S. Marine Corps F/A-18 Hornets, and Air Force A-10 Warthogs, F-16 Fighting Falcons, and F-22 Raptors.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter at Defense News. He previously reported for Military.com, covering the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare. Before that, he covered U.S. Air Force leadership, personnel and operations for Air Force Times.