October 26, 2021 | Breaking Defense

If The Air Force Buys The E-7A Wedgetail, What’s Next?

As the service works to procure the required number of E-7As as quickly as possible, it should simultaneously implement a comprehensive plan to expedite the training of US Air Force pilots and air battle management crews.
October 26, 2021 | Breaking Defense

If The Air Force Buys The E-7A Wedgetail, What’s Next?

As the service works to procure the required number of E-7As as quickly as possible, it should simultaneously implement a comprehensive plan to expedite the training of US Air Force pilots and air battle management crews.

The US Air Force has hinted for months that it may seek to acquire the E-7A Wedgetail to replace the aging E-3 Sentry and ensure that American forces have the best airborne early warning and control capabilities available. The Air Force posted a notice on October 19 that seeks more answers from Boeing to inform the future potential procurement of the E-7A.

If the Air Force decides to do so and is successful in gaining the congressional authority and funding necessary to acquire the E-7A, the Pentagon will need a plan to field the E-7A and divest the E-3 that does not create capability and capacity gaps just when Chinese and Russian airborne threats are growing more formidable. Given the poor condition of the E-3, the constrained Air Force budget, and rapidly emerging threats, managing the transition well is easier said than done.

Here are some specific steps the Pentagon could take to help.

With the E-3 on its last legs, the first step obviously is to acquire the E-7A as quickly as possible. Our analysis suggests that the US Air Force should procure approximately 25 to 28 Wedgetail aircraft. This will provide one aircraft for test-and-development work, four training aircraft, and at least 20 operational aircraft. Ideally, seven or more of the operational E-7As would always be forward-stationed in-theater or at least on a short tether at home base.

The home base can be the historical airborne early warning and control facilities at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma, and the detachment sites can be in the Pacific (Guam, Japan, Australia), Europe (Germany, the United Kingdom), and a number of locations in the Middle East, as determined by the Defense Department’s global force management process. Detachments can be driven by major exercise schedules, allied and joint force training cycles, and crisis management actions. The ability of these in-flight refuellable E-7As to reliably push to a theater on short notice will be a welcome improvement on the aging E-3 fleet.

To facilitate congressional support for E-3 divestment as the E-7A is fielded, the Air Force may need to ensure that the E-3s at Elmendorf Air Base in Alaska are among the last to retire. A commitment up front to have an E-7A detachment site at Elmendorf also might preemptively turn the Alaska congressional delegation from an opponent to an ally for the transition.

The bad news is that acquiring 26 or so E-7As will take several years. The good news is that there are several opportunities to minimize the time it takes the US Air Force to procure, onboard, and operate Wedgetails.

Since the E-7A is already available, the Air Force could rapidly prototype and field the capability using Other Transaction Authority [PDF] provided by Congress. Since the Wedgetail is already largely built with state-of-the-art US equipment, the US Air Force can work to minimize the impact of any US-unique capabilities that may need to be installed. This will significantly reduce design time, testing time, and cost.

Also, the British are reportedly considering reducing their initial purchase of five Wedgetail aircraft down to three. That would potentially permit the US Air Force to quickly procure the final aircraft that were originally destined for the United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force.

As the service works to procure the required number of E-7As as quickly as possible, it should simultaneously implement a comprehensive plan to expedite the training of US Air Force pilots and air battle management crews. Future US Air Force E-7A crews could begin to train and operate more routinely and extensively with the Royal Australian Air Force Wedgetail fleet before the US Air Force even acquires the E-7A. US Air Force pilots could also train in advance with commercial partners who fly the 737. These steps will help the US Air Force hit the ground running when it finally acquires the E-7A.

Regardless, given their poor condition, the Air Force’s E-3s may become unflyable at a faster rate than the Air Force can procure the E-7A. That could create a dangerous capability gap as the Chinese and Russian threats become more formidable.

We have argued in the past that the E-7A should be the “bridge” between the E-3 and future space-based capabilities, but to manage this risk will require creative thinking and – at least in the short term – perhaps another, short-term link in the chain. The Navy’s E-2D can help.

In the 2000s, the US Navy recognized the need to transition to a more capable airborne early warning and control platform and settled on the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye carrier-based aircraft to replace the existing E-2C Hawkeye aircraft. The E-2D comes with improved engines, a glass cockpit, and in-flight refueling. The E-2D sensor suite represents a significant upgrade over its predecessor, with an ultra-high-frequency band active electronically scanned array radar. There have also been improvements to the communications and battle management systems, which include Cooperative Engagement Capability and Link 16.

Using the active electronically scanned array radar, increased digital computing power, and Cooperative Engagement Capability, the E-2D can improve both the accuracy and the efficiency of launch platform (ships and aircraft) engagements and can even guide the launch platform’s weapons onto targets beyond the platform’s ability to detect. The Navy requires 86 E-2Ds to transition all carrier-based squadrons to that system. Seventy-eight have been budgeted, with the last one set to arrive in 2025.

However, while the E-2D can help meet some requirements and reduce risk during the transition from the E-3 to the E-7A, the E-2D is not a viable substitute for the Air Force’s acquisition of the E-7A. The E-2D, for example, has only four tactical control stations (compared to the E-7A’s 10) and has reduced loiter time. The Department of Defense needs the E-7A, but the E-2D can be helpful in the meantime.

To address combatant commander requirements during the multi-year transition from the E-3 to the E-7A, the Pentagon should task the Navy with providing detachments of two E-2D aircraft (and up to four crews) to conduct short-term deployments to Anderson (Guam) and Ramstein (Germany) airfields for two to three months in length, and then maintain these detachments on a 72-hour tether at Point Mugu (California), with an ability to surge to either theater.

This would introduce a persistent, high-end air surveillance capability to the air and maritime component commanders in-theater, improve integration between US Air Force and Navy units, and allow for increased cooperation with Royal Australian Air Force Wedgetails.

The arrangement would be especially useful in Indo-Pacific Command’s area of operations when the command’s forward-deployed carrier and E-2D-equipped air wing are conducting their five-month-long annual maintenance and training stand-downs. These E-2D detachments can be augmented by one- to two-month-long integrated deployments of Royal Australian Air Force and (future UK Royal Air Force) Wedgetail detachments in the Pacific and European theaters, respectively.

If the US Air Force decides to move ahead with the procurement of the E-7, getting the aircraft is only half the challenge. The service should also devise an E-3 retirement and E-7 fielding plan that ensures combatant commanders have the warfighting capabilities they need in the near term.

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