In 2006, Australia was so concerned about the Wedgetail airborne early warning and control program that it had to think of how to keep Boeing committed to delivering it. The contract had a fixed price, with damages for schedule misses that by then were apparent. But the defense department was not much interested in compensation. It was fixated on obtaining the capability.

Nine years later, it has it. The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) has given a glowing report on the performance of the Boeing E-7 Wedgetail and its Northrop Grumman Mesa radar over Iraq in the campaign to suppress Islamic State. Only a few minor issues now need to be resolved before declaring the six Wedgetails fully operational, probably in the middle of this year, says RAAF Wing Cmdr. Paul Carpenter.

The type, which became initially operational in 2012 after a development program that ran for 12 years, is already in line for upgrades, notably for the Mesa.

The RAAF says the Wedgetail is performing reliably in Iraq, where it shares the burden of battle-space management with Boeing E-3 Sentries. “We are very happy with the performance we are getting out of the radar and the systems,” says Carpenter, who until late last year led the RAAF’s Wedgetail unit, No. 2 Sqdn. 

Air Vice Marshal Chris Deeble, then the head of the Wedgetail program, would have been delighted to hear those words in 2006, when he told Aviation Week that Australia would reserve some of its rights to compensation to keep Boeing motivated. “We cannot afford to get a lesser capability than we have specified,” he said then. “It is a critical part of the way we intend to war fight” (AW&ST Nov. 20, 2006, p. 30).

That way of fighting, not quite spelled out, was and is based on massive collection and dissemination of information, by and between such systems as Wedgetail, the Jindalee over-the-horizon radar, manned and unmanned maritime surveillance and electronic intelligence aircraft and the Lockheed Martin F-35, not to mention data supplied by allies, especially the U.S. The campaign to thoroughly network the RAAF and its sibling services is now taking a step forward with Project Jericho, prompted by the planned arrival of the F-35 into service in 2020, Deeble is now running the Australian F-35 acquisition.

In the end, Australia did not get all of the capability that it originally specified. Some items were downgraded or deleted, but it seems that none of the changes greatly reduced the Wedgetail capability. Boeing added functions that Australia did not originally ask for—and is now pleased to have. First delivery, contracted in 2000 for 2006, did not occur until 2009. The gap understates the program delay, however, because an inordinate three years was then needed to make the aircraft initially operational.

Now the Wedgetail is about to be fully operational—but not finally operational. The latter status will probably be reached the day before it is retired, says Carpenter, because the type will always be subject to upgrades. Already, “we still have a huge shopping list of things that still need to go in there, . . . lots more features to work on.”

Upgrades are easier now that signals processing in modern systems is changed by software, not necessarily by switching hardware. “There is an enormous amount of potential in that Mesa radar that is waiting to be unlocked by a whole bunch of ones and zeros,” Carpenter told reporters at the Australian International Airshow at Avalon near Melbourne in February. There are clear paths to upgrading the radar, he adds, giving no details. 

Turkey and South Korea also operate the E-7. Although the three countries’ aircraft are not identical, they all feature the Mesa, the active, electronically scanned array of which is mounted on a dorsal fin on the fuselage of the E-7. The aircraft is based on the high-gross-weight version of the Boeing 737-700 airliner.

Typically, the Wedgetail deployed to Iraq has flown missions lasting 13-16 hr., including 8-12 hr. on station. Inflight refueling, while previously practiced, has become routine. 

“We wanted the E-7 Wedgetail to take the role of the E-3, not be second-rate, and that worked,” says Carpenter. “We wanted to be plugged into the American system and not be a burden and in fact be an enhancing feature.” Logistics was part of that; the Australians supported themselves.

The deployed Wedgetail began contributing sooner than expected, on its first mission over Iraq in October. On that occasion, the aircraft was supposed to work as an apprentice to a U.S. Air Force E-3 in the busy northern sector of the country, so the Australians could learn the ropes before going solo in the southern sector, where fewer allied aircraft needed to be controlled. But the E-3 was unserviceable. The Wedgetail crew was forced to take on the northern sector immediately, putting to use experience gained in an intensive exercise program before the deployment. 

The RAAF has not previously operated airborne early warning and control aircraft. In Iraq, a particular new task for the Wedgetail crew was the busy and critical one of orchestrating tanking for the aircraft in the zone.

The Wedgetails have been operating in Iraq above 30,000 ft. but not at their ceiling, 41,000 ft. They stay above the tankers and tactical aircraft, while U-2s and RQ-4 Global Hawks fly above them. The electronic support measures suite has been used in Iraq, says Carpenter.

The RAAF and its suppliers appear to have supported the Wedgetail well in Iraq. “Every time we had to replace a component or do some work on it, we had the right people, we had the right parts and the procedures,” says the wing commander.

A last-minute addition to the aircraft was Internet protocol (IP) chat, which had been due for installation years later but was rigged up in weeks. The system, running through the Iridium satellite phone system, was used to communicate with the combined air operations center on the ground, with command-and-control aircraft and UAV operators. “The Americans used IP chat extensively,” notes Carpenter.

Before the Iraqi deployment, a Wedgetail took charge of movements in the search for Malaysia Airlines flight 370 off Western Australia last year. The order to deploy was received one afternoon and the aircraft left its base, RAAF Williamtown on the east coast, the next morning. Only five workstations had to be manned for that job—compared with all 10 in Iraq or for a big exercise—but the work included the challenge of coordinating Chinese, Japanese, South Korean, New Zealand, Malaysian, U.S. and Australian aircraft.

The aircraft is named after the wedgetail eagle, an Australian bird with unusually acute vision. 

This article was originally published in the April 6, 2015 issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology