LONDON — Britain’s top airman says he wants the Royal Air Force to restore the number of airborne early warning aircraft it originally planned to acquire before the number of platforms was reduced to save money in a government defense review.
Officials reduced an order with Boeing for five E-7 Wedgetail aircraft to just three in the course of a wholesale review of British defense and foreign policy in March 2021.
But giving evidence to the parliamentary Defence Select Committee on Feb. 1, Air Chief Marshal Mike Wigston said he hoped to see the fleet of early warning and control aircraft returned to its required number of five over time.
A refresh of the integrated defense review is due to be published soon, following the changed security landscape after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The under-equipped British Army is expected to be the big winner in the rethink of policy and capability, but the air force is short of firepower too.
“The integrated review refresh is ongoing. The decisions are for the secretary of state. I think what we would recognize as a future fleet and an aspiration of a future fleet is five [Wedgetails],” said Wigston, who is due to stand down from his position as chief of the air staff later this year.
Responding to a question in Parliament last December, Defence Procurement Minister Alex Chalk said the original estimated acquisition cost for five E-7 Wedgetail aircraft program was £2.16 billion, or $2.67 billion The current forecast for the three aircraft program is £1.89 billion, or $2.34 billion.
Britain scrapped its last aging Boeing E-3 Sentry airborne early warning aircraft in 2021 and has been living with a capability gap awaiting the delivery of the Wedgetails.
The three Wedgetails are being converted from second-hand Boeing 737NG airliners by STS Aviation at a site in Birmingham, England.
Delivery of the first aircraft is planned for next year, but Wigston ducked questions from Committee members over exactly when the aircraft would meet its initial operational capability.
The air force chief said the change in the program from five to three aircraft still required the business case for the reduced number of airframes to get through the approval process.
“Part of that approval process is when we actually define the initial operating capability and set a date. That will happen in the next few months, so the middle of 2023,” he said.
British air crew, engineers and technicians are currently embedded with the Royal Australian Air Force training on operating Wedgetail, which should speed the delivery into service, Wigston said.
Australia was the launch customer for the Wedgetail and is currently the leading operator of the aircraft, although that will change with the U.S. Air Force also becoming a customer.
Andrew Chuter is the United Kingdom correspondent for Defense News.