October 25, 2021 | Breaking Defense

Time To Wedge The E-7A Wedgetail Into The US Air Force Fleet

October 25, 2021 | Breaking Defense

Time To Wedge The E-7A Wedgetail Into The US Air Force Fleet

The success of American joint forces in a potential conflict with China or Russia will depend in part on whether the US Air Force can continue to provide warfighters with advanced airborne early warning and control capabilities. Yet the Air Force’s ability to do so is increasingly in question.

That’s because the E-3 Sentry, the Air Force’s four-decade-old airborne early warning and control aircraft, is in bad shape and will need to be retired soon. This potential capability gap looms just when China and Russia are fielding increasingly advanced air forces and trying to outpace U.S. airborne early warning and control capabilities.

One of us has written in these pages with colleagues that the Air Force needs a “bridge” between the E-3 and a future space-based capability. The E-7A Wedgetail, already flown by our allies, should be that bridge.  Even when the space-based platform is available, it will need to be augmented with planes in the sky, and other options like unmanned aircraft currently aren’t built to handle the weighty task.

The Pentagon should direct the Air Force to procure the E-7A as quickly as possible.

Gen. Mark Kelly, the commander of U.S. Air Combat Command, said last month that his top intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance modernization priority is to replace the E-3. “We are in the single-digit number of years before that airplane votes with its wings and votes with its metal structure that it’s just not viable to operate and sustain any longer,” Kelly said.

The E-3 suffers from significant engine and structural challenges and a weakening supply chain that makes solving increasingly frequent maintenance problems more difficult and costly. Meanwhile, the E-3’s older early warning and control capabilities are inferior to those that China and Russia are sprinting to the field.

It’s clear the Air Force must move quickly, but the question is in what direction.

The Air Force hopes eventually to migrate much of the airborne moving-target indicator mission that the E-3 currently performs to space-based platforms. The problem is that the service still lacks an operational capability to perform that mission from space.

Conducting effective airborne moving-target indictor missions, not to mention tactical command and control, requires continuity of tracking, and that means constant updates regarding the location, altitude, and bearing of airborne targets. Additional research and development is needed to prove that satellites can be used to conduct air battle management and control missions.


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