RAF FAIRFORD, England — The Air Force is trying to find ways to speed delivery of the E-7 Wedgetail, but the service’s top acquisition official said July 16 there may not be much that can be done.
The Air Force in April chose the Boeing-made Wedgetail to be its next battle management and command and control aircraft, replacing part of its aging E-3 Airborne Warning and Control fleet. But the service said in the announcement the first rapid prototype E-7 would be delivered in fiscal 2027, following a contract award to Boeing in fiscal 2023.
The Air Force wants to retire 15 of its 31 decades-old AWACS in 2023, years before the first E-7′s anticipated delivery, generating concern among lawmakers like Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., about a potential capability gap.
In a roundtable with reporters at the Royal International Air Tattoo at RAF Fairford in England, Andrew Hunter, assistant Air Force secretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, sought to temper expectations about how much the process could be expedited.
“I don’t know that ultimately, there’s a huge opportunity to dramatically accelerate” achieving initial operational capability for the Wedgetail, he said.
Adapting used airframes likely isn’t an option, Hunter said. While the Wedgetail is based on Boeing’s 737 air frame, it has a “unique combination” of components that means there aren’t many used airframes the government could acquire.
The Wedgetail acquisition will also require software development, making use of open systems architecture, Hunter said.
This software development will also take time, he said, but when Boeing has the first new Wedgetail air frame built and ready to be “missionized,” the Air Force will be ready to load that equipment.
“We’re going to have this as something that works in a completely integrated way with our Air Force fleet,” Hunter said.
He noted the Air Force has learned a great deal in recent years from mistakes made in the FAA certification process, such as underestimating the information the FAA would need and subsequently delaying the MH-139 Grey Wolf helicopter’s certification. While Hunter said he isn’t taking that part of the process for granted, he said he’s confident the FAA will certify the new E-7s.
The FAA is required to review the avionics and other systems of new military aircraft and certify they are safe and functional before the aircraft can be delivered.
In the May hearing in which Duckworth raised concerns about the timing of the Wedgetail delivery, Lt. Gen. Duke Richardson, Hunter’s military deputy, said the Air Force might be able to buy E-7s more quickly once the certification process is done. But he also cautioned not to rush the contract process.
The U.S. Air Force is talking to its Australian and British counterparts to learn how it can accelerate the process, he said. The Royal Australian Air Force has flown the Wedgetail for years, and the Royal Air Force has bought Wedgetails and is expected to start flying them next year.
The Air Force has also consulted the Navy, whose P-8 Poseidon is a modified 737 like the Wedgetail.
“There’s a community of interest around that aircraft, and that gives us some opportunity to work with our partners to get to the right answer,” Hunter said.
While the E-7 is a nearly two-decade old model, Hunter said it will provide a modern and considerable upgrade in capability from the aging E-3 Sentry. And its use of modular open systems architecture will allow its software-oriented radar systems to be regularly upgraded.
“The capability is impressive,” Hunter said. “It’s a night and day difference.”
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.