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The RAF’s compliment of six  E-3Ds Sentry Air Battle Management and Surveillance (ABM&S), or AWACS, was purchased in the late 1980s, with first deliveries in 1990. In 1993 the Gulf war alone, some 5,000+ hours of on-station time were logged.  The aircraft now need a £2-billion modernisation programme to bring them to current US and French E-3 standards by the mid-2020s. This was formally addressed in the 2015 National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), which committed the UK government to upgrade and extend the service life of the E-3D fleet until 2035.

However, the E-3, even in modernised form, is no longer a cutting-edge ABM&S system. Long-range missile systems and emerging, non-Western, low-observable fighters can force it to stay hundreds of kilometres from contested airspace, placing a higher premium on Beyond Line of Sight (BLOS) communications rather than on-board sensors.

Even when it is able to operate closer to the battlespace, the AN/APY-1/2 mechanically scanned radar array common to all E-3s has significant inherent limitations in terms of its ability to detect low-observable, very slow moving and hypersonic threats, unlike more modern Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA)-equipped AWACS aircraft now in service with the US Navy and other air forces.

Once one accepts the concept of investing in an AESA-equipped ABM&S platform with improved communications capabilities etc., it becomes increasingly difficult to avoid following this logic through to the point at which a modern, commercially-derived airframe might make a great deal more sense than trying to repackage the new electronics into an already old aircraft – in this case a derivative of the Boeing 707.

There is growing concern amongst Parliamentarians about the way the programme is being handled by the MOD, fearful that the whole project will be handed on a non-competitive plate to Boeing. The reasons for doing so are fairly obvious: no-other company has the systems expertise to take the current platform and electronics and do the necessary integration with a reasonable level of confidence in meeting performance, cost and timing criteria. However, all this assumes retention of the current platform.

Defence Sub-Committee Chair, Madeleine Moon, has called for the programme to be subjected to the normal processes of competitive tendering. “Buying from Boeing forgets the importance of British defence jobs and maintaining this country’s defence industry’s capabilities. By buying off the shelf without an open competition how will we know we will be getting not only the best deal but also the best equipment?”

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence has, by way of a reply to Ms Moon’s questions, offered this explanation of current UK thinking:  “No decision has been made with regard to the future delivery of the UK’s Airborne Warning and Control capabilities, although a range of options are being explored. I am withholding details of the level of funding allocated for the future delivery of the RAF’s Airborne Warning and Control System as releasing them would prejudice commercial interests.”

The UK is, of course, not the only nation to be weighing up their options. Many countries are now looking for solutions to current and future threats and how to manage them. Dispersed systems, sometimes referred to as  “distributed networks of multi-role sensor and shooter platforms” that are less dependent  on a few, very expensive and sophisticated aerial platforms, are being considered by some of the more sophisticated (and better-funded), air forces.

New entries into this arena include the likes of China; they have the advantage of a clean slate from which to work. However, there is little likelihood that any such system will be deployed for a very long time, and many regard the 2035 date as something  of a distraction, saying that 2050 should be the service-life target for any planned upgrades.

Photo: Commons Wikimedia

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