The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) has reached a major milestone in one of its critical military programs this month, declaring Full Operational Capability (FOC) on its fleet of six Boeing E-7A Wedgetails, the service’s airborne early warning & control (AEW&C) aircraft. Per the RAAF, “FOC is declared when the entire capability can be deployed on operations. FOC considers the personnel, training, major systems, supplies, facilities and training areas, logistics, support, command and management required to deliver the full capability required.”
It all began with a request for proposal in 1996 under the name Project Wedgetail, so named for the country’s largest bird of prey, Australia partnered with Boeing in 2000 for an AEW&C type that the RAAF was lacking. After initially suffering several years of delays from mating the airframe with its numerous additional systems, it appears Australia has been happy with their Wedgetails and its advanced command and control capabilities. The E-7 is based on Boeing’s 737 Business Jet, which features a 737-700 fuselage paired with a larger 737-800 wing giving it a 9-hour endurance (extendable with aerial refueling), which made it ideally suited for the fruitless (thus far) search for Malaysian 370 in the Pacific Ocean.
The Wedgetail comes with plenty of extras compared to your run-of-the-mill 737, most notably the Northrop Grumman Multi-Role Electronically Scanned Array (MESA) radar housed in a low-drag “top hat” fairing above the fuselage. This powerful radar allows for complete 360 degrees of coverage, just like the rotating radar of the older Boeing E-3 Sentry. Operating in L-band range, Northrop Grumman touts the MESA system as being able to “provide wide area surveillance of greater than 340,000 square miles at rates exceeding 30,000 square miles per second.”
The MESA radar, combined with the integrated BAE Systems mission control consoles, gives the RAAF a huge boost in networked command and control capability, which will be increasingly vital as the use of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) and the service’s F-35s begin to arrive in 2018. Australia sees the Wedgetail as a crucial component of the RAAF-led Plan Jericho, which seeks to seamlessly integrate all of Australia’s military forces into a networked and connected fighting force.
RAAF Air Marshall Geoff Brown, the Chief of Air Force, explains that “our operating environment will be increasingly complex, with high volumes of rapidly produced data moving along contested lines of communication to challenge our decision capacity.” Thus the need for “a force with the freedom of action in the air, space, electromagnetic and cyber domains required to deliver air power for Australia’s interests, in all operating environments.”
The E-7 Wedgetail and its battle management capability is an essential piece of that puzzle. Stationed at RAAF Base Williamtown near Newcastle and operated by 2 Squadron, the Wedgetails have been regulars at large-force exercises over the last few years such as Red Flag (both Nellis and Alaska) and RIMPAC, leading up to the type’s FOC. Even with only six airframes in the fleet, they’ve already proven their worth and since October 2014, an E-7 has been deployed to support Operation OKRA, the Australian effort to combat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.