DAYTON, Ohio — The U.S. Air Force is trying to speed up a contract award in its plan to buy Boeing’s E-7 Wedgetail early warning and control aircraft to protect the program from a potential continuing resolution that could limit available funds.
The Air Force selected the E-7 in April to replace a portion of its E-3 Airborne Warning and Control fleet, a command-and-control platform the service has been operating for more than 40 years. The service’s proposed 2023 budget calls for retiring 15 E-3s, or about half the fleet, and includes $227 million in research, development, test and evaluation funds for the replacement.
Steven Wert, the program executive officer for the service’s Digital Directorate, which oversees the Wedgetail acquisition, told reporters this week that if Congress fails to pass a fiscal 2023 defense budget on time, it would delay the Air Force’s current plan to award Boeing a contract by February of next year.
Lawmakers have until Sept. 30 to pass an appropriations bill, a fast-approaching deadline made more challenging by the August congressional recess. If Congress fails to approve a budget, it must approve a continuing resolution as a stopgap measure to keep the government funded until it does. Continuing resolutions freeze funding at prior-year levels and restrict agencies from awarding contracts to start new programs or increasing procurement quantities.
Agencies can request “anomalies” to shield priority programs from the impact of a CR, and Wert told reporters during an Aug. 10 briefing at the Air Force’s Life Cycle Management Industry Days event in Dayton, Ohio, the service plans to request protection for the E-7 acquisition.
At the same time, the service is also seeking congressional approval to shift, or reprogram, fiscal year 2022 funding from other accounts to speed up the E-7 award. If approved, the Air Force could award the deal to Boeing before February, Wert said.
“That new-start reprogramming would give us the flexibility to potentially speed it up somewhat,” he said. “It’s not going to be a dramatic speed-up, but we’re doing everything we can.”
The Air Force expects to have its first E-7 on hand by fiscal 2027. While the aircraft is an off-the-shelf solution, it will require some software upgrades as well as integration of new hardware.
The Royal Australian Air Force also flies the Wedgetail and Wert said the service is working closely with Australia to identify options to collaborate and accelerate test and evaluation. The U.K. also signed a deal with Boeing in 2018 to buy five E-7s and is considering expanding that procurement and Saudi Arabia has shown interest in the platform, Wert said.
“The potential is there for cooperative programs between the nations that are currently using the E-7,” he said. “We are hearing of a lot of interest from other nations to look to E-7 as well.”
With reporting by Stephen Losey
Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET’s space and emerging technology reporter. She has covered the U.S. military since 2012, with a focus on the Air Force and Space Force. She has reported on some of the Defense Department’s most significant acquisition, budget and policy challenges.