July 29, 2022 | Breaking Defense

Let the Air Force let go of the E-3 ‘Sentry’

July 29, 2022 | Breaking Defense

Let the Air Force let go of the E-3 ‘Sentry’

The Air Force wants to retire almost half of its E-3 “Sentry” airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft to free up finite resources needed to expedite fielding of much-needed next-generation capability and strengthen the readiness of the remaining E-3s. But the Senate Armed Services Committee’s version of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2023 released last week makes clear Congress is concerned the Air Force’s plan could create “a significant gap in airborne command and control capability.”

Avoiding a capability gap is certainly a laudable goal, especially in the next few years when many worry Beijing may attack Taiwan. When it comes to the E-3, however, closer scrutiny demonstrates that delaying the aircraft’s partial divestment could simply prolong a capability gap that already exists and divert scarce resources — in time, money and manpower — urgently needed to field a more capable replacement, the E-7.

There are 31 E-3s in the Air Force’s inventory. The service wants to divest 15 from Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma next fiscal year while retaining two E-3s at Kadena Airbase in Japan, two at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska, and 12 at Tinker.

Yet, with the Air Force saying its first E-7s won’t be fielded until fiscal year 2027, Congress has some hesitation.

Following even more restrictive language passed by the House of Representatives, the Senate Armed Services Committee voted to restrict the Air Force from initially divesting more than five E-3s. Once the Air Force approves a detailed acquisition strategy, the current Senate bill would permit divestment of five more E-3s. When the Air Force signs a contract to purchase the E-7, the Senate version would permit the retirement of five more aircraft, making a total of 15.

Therein lies the rub in the push and pull between the Air Force and the congressional armed services committees.

At the heart of the disagreement are two contested questions. One is whether divestment of the E-3 should be linked to the acquisition of the E-7, and the other relates to how fast the Air Force can move to acquire and field the E-7.

At first glance, those opposing the divestment might seem to have the better argument on the first question. After all, to use a Tarzan metaphor, why let go of the E-3 vine before the E-7 vine is firmly in grasp, thereby creating a serious problem for Tarzan (and a capability gap for the joint force)?

But to continue the metaphor, the Air Force’s response is essentially that the E-3 vine is breaking (and in some ways already broken), regardless of the status of the E-7 vine. No good can come from clinging to it any longer.

In this debate, there’s actually good reason to believe the Air Force is correct.

The Air Force received its first E-3s in 1977, and the aircraft is getting more difficult to keep in the air each year. From 2019 to 2022, the E-3’s full or partial mission-capable rate declined from 75% to 59%, with only 10% of E-3s achieving fully mission-capable status this year.

Also, as the E-3’s Boeing 707 platform ages, it becomes more difficult to find suppliers for vital replacement parts. Commercial airlines retired their Boeing 707s long ago. The E-3’s non-mission-capable rates have more than doubled over the last three years due to supply challenges.

In fact, maintenance challenges have become so acute that all four of the E-3s assigned to the Pacific are frequently grounded, according to public comments by Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach, Commander of US Pacific Air Forces.

When combatant commanders cannot even count on an aircraft to takeoff, it is difficult to argue the aircraft’s divestment creates a new capability gap, especially if divesting a portion of the fleet increases the readiness of the remaining aircraft. Indeed, a smaller E-3 fleet would reduce the demand for hard-to-find parts and permit an increasingly weak logistical base to focus on maintaining the readiness of a smaller number of aircraft.

Unfortunately, the E-3’s problems don’t stop with maintenance. Even if the aircraft can get off the ground, Wilsbach says the E-3’s airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) capabilities “aren’t really capable in the 21st-century fight.” The E-3 would be of little use in a high-end conflict with China.

That is not to say the E-3 has zero utility. Geographic combatant commanders continue to request it. The E-3 can still play a valuable intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance role in some environments, contribute to conventional deterrence and fulfill a constructive AEW&C role against less advanced foes.

But there should be no illusions regarding the E-3’s growing maintenance challenges and costs or its obsolescence in combat scenarios against peer adversaries.

In other words, a capability gap already exists and will get worse with time, as the condition of the E-3 fleet deteriorates further and Beijing continues to field more advanced capabilities.

According to FDD research, retiring 15 E-3s would save almost $3 billion over five years, funds that will help the Air Force acquire the E-7 rather than nurse decrepit aircraft that belong in the boneyard. Divestment would also free up approximately 1,500 airmen who currently employ and maintain the aircraft, some of whom could then be sent to E-7 training, hastening full operational capability.

That’s why the Air Force is wise to want to retire at least some of the E-3 fleet regardless of the E-7’s status.

That brings us to the next critical question: the degree to which the Air Force can expedite the acquisition of the E-7 and start fielding it before fiscal year 2027.

Some related questions include: Could the Air Force produce an acquisition strategy by the end of September? Is it possible to get an initial contract in place for the E-7 by early next year?

If so, even under the language approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee, the Air Force could then divest the 15 E-3s in fiscal year 2023.

The Air Force’s acquisition chief has cautioned it might not be possible to “dramatically accelerate” E-7 procurement. But it is worth noting that a Boeing official subsequently suggested there are “a lot of options” potentially enabling the Air Force to field the E-7 faster.

Regardless, the burden of proof should be on anyone who suggests that acquisition processes cannot be streamlined or timelines expedited, especially since the stakes in the Indo-Pacific are so serious.

Expediting acquisitions is easier said than done, of course. But the United States has rightly moved heaven and earth to get Ukraine the weapons it needs following Putin’s unprovoked invasion. We should bring the same sense of urgency to the fielding of the E-7 for our own forces.

The ongoing conversation between the Air Force and Congress regarding the E-3 is a microcosm of a larger perennial challenge that spans multiple programs and impacts all services. Due to finite budgets and a backlog of modernization needs, the services struggle to maintain legacy systems while simultaneously acquiring next-generation systems, even as Washington confronts unprecedented threats.

Sometimes divestments create unacceptable capability gaps, and sometimes legacy systems are so antiquated the capability gap already exists even if the system is retained. The E-3 falls in the latter category.

The more important question is how the Air Force, Congress, industry, and US allies can work together more effectively to expedite the fielding of the E-7. Our forces need this modernized capability badly, and there is no time to waste.

Bradley Bowman is senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Maj. Brian Leitzke is an Air Force officer and visiting military analyst at FDD. The views expressed in this commentary are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Defense Department or the Air Force. FDD is a nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


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