UAE’s Air Force and Air Defense (AFAD) has a long-standing interest in acquiring an airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) capability. Illustrating the importance of this opportunity, all three competitors have brought aircraft to the show in the form of the Boeing 737AEW&C, Northrop Grumman E-2 Hawkeye and the Saab 2000AEW&C. Each represents a different approach to the UAE’s possible requirements.
In the meantime, the UAE AFAD has already started AEW operations. At the Dubai air show two years ago it was announced that the AFAD would acquire two ex-Swedish air force Saab 340 AEW aircraft equipped with the Erieye radar.
Buying the Saab 340s is an interim purchase to give the AFAD experience of integrating and operating an AEW system, and to assist with the evaluation and eventual acquisition of a longer-term solution. “It was a good decision [by the UAE] to go this way,” said Sten Söderström, vice president sales and marketing for Saab’s security and defense solutions business area. “Buying an aircraft and its systems is easy, but how to operate it and integrate it into the overall CONOPS [Concept of Operations] is another matter.”
Saab delivered the first of the 340s in 2010, and the second arrived earlier this year. The aircraft were modified slightly from their Swedish configuration prior to delivery, but are believed to retain the Swedish minimally-manned operational concept, with mission systems operators being ground-based and receiving the radar’s picture via datalink.
While the UAE AFAD gets to know the AEW mission better, the service remains in dialog with the three main competitors for the longer-term requirement. Following the release of a request for proposals in 2006, the manufacturers have kept their offers regularly updated. The UAE has revealed no timescale for the AEW&C program, but a number of industry insiders have suggested that it might become a priority after the UAE has finalized its fighter selection.
Boeing’s 737 AEW&C aircraft, represented here by an aircraft of the Turkish air force, is based on the 737-700IGW airliner. This has the Series 700’s short fuselage but the wings of the Series 800 to enable it to lift heavier weights. The prime mission sensor is Northrop Grumman’s multimode electronically-scanned array (MESA) radar, which offers full 360° coverage and a versatile range of operating modes, including maritime capability.
John Johnson, vice president of Northrop Grumman’s ISR Systems Division that makes the MESA radar, characterized the key strength of the 737AEW&C as offering “greater command levels”, based on its greater size and 10 mission operator stations. While this could appear to be more than the UAE requires for purely national defense missions, Johnson noted that, “they are a major player on the global scene now. The UAE may have out-of-area commitments.”
Boeing’s Egan Greenstein, business development manager??? surveillance and engagement, noted only that the Boeing proposal “meets or exceeds the UAE’s requirements.” He admitted that the type’s immaturity might have previously counted against it. “I think maybe that might have been a problem in the past, when it was in the developmental stage,” he said, “but today it’s an operational system.”
Australia has received five of its six Wedgetail aircraft and has them in service, while Korea’s first of four Peace Eye aircraft, delivered on September 21, is already being used. By the end of the year the second Korean and sixth Australian aircraft will be in service.
Boeing is pursuing further opportunities for the 737AEW&C. These include Japan, which may seek a Hawkeye replacement around the end of the decade, and India. Both Indian air force and navy have asked for information and, while the air force has stated that it wishes to proceed for now with its own programs, the Indian navy remains interested in the 737AEW&C as a means of expanding coverage of its growing fleet. Further ahead, the U.S. Air Force and other E-3 users will require a replacement aircraft from about 2025.
Northrop Grumman E-2D Hawkeye
Casting a distinctive shadow on the Dubai ramp is the Hawkeye, represented by an E-2C from the U.S. Navy. The Hawkeye has been the service’s carrier-borne AEW platform since the 1960s and has been updated continuously. However, the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye that is on offer to the UAE is an all-new version with much-enhanced capabilities.
“The threat in this region is the same as that which drove the U.S. Navy to develop the E-2D in the first place,” Jerry Spruill, Northrop Grumman’s director UAE AEW&C programs, told AIN. “Smaller, harder to detect, over land, over water cruise missiles. When you can handle those, the less stressing threats become no problem.”
At the heart of the E-2D is a new radar, the Lockheed Martin APY-9. Northrop Grumman examined various antenna configurations but settled on an electronically-scanned array in a rotating dome. The hybrid system allows maximum range detection across a 360° sweep, with the ability to stop the antenna and focus on one sector.
The E-2D retains three operator stations in the cabin, but also adds a tactical cockpit so that the co-pilot can participate in mission control. Northrop Grumman has determined that the advances in automation and connectivity means that four operators are sufficient to handle both surveillance and battle management requirements.
Northrop Grumman is currently producing 75 E-2Ds for the U.S. Navy, which affects directly the life-cycle costs for export customers as they would be joining an already large resource pool. Development costs for future upgrades would also be amortized across a large fleet.
Although outwardly it looks the same, the Erieye mission system of the Saab 2000 being proposed to the UAE AFAD is much more capable than that installed in the current 340AEWs. Through development for customers such as the Pakistan air force, which is exhibiting a Saab 2000 at the show, the Erieye radar has been improved significantly. Among the key features of the latest radar is an impressive maritime capability, which allows surface targets as small as jet-skis to be detected.
Saab has determined that the 2000 prop-driven airliner is the best platform for the UAE’s potential requirements, offering good hot-and-high performance with low operating costs. However, Saab notes that the Erieye radar and mission control system can also be offered in the Embraer EMB-145 jet platform.
As well as its radar and mission capabilities, Saab sees several advantages of the 2000AEW&C with regard to the UAE. The combination of the 2000 platform and the lack of moving parts in the radar system equates to a low operational footprint, and the ability for it to be operated by a small team may be appropriate for peacetime national defense tasks. “You don’t need to have [airborne] operators,” said Saab’s Sten Söderström, “but you can put them in if you go out-of-area.”
Söderström also highlighted the independent nature of Saab’s offer, and therefore its ability to be adapted easily to meet customer needs. “Erieye was not developed by a superpower for superpower needs,” he noted.
Saab has already demonstrated the ability of the Erieye system to easily adapt to national infrastructures, including datalinks, through the sale of the system to Pakistan and Thailand. Interest in the Erieye is high in the region, and a number have been ordered by an unconfirmed customer, thought to be Saudi Arabia.
There is also interest in other Saab 2000-based systems. Saab has used the Dubai Air Show to flesh out some details of its Airtracer signals intelligence system, which gathers and classifies emissions in the 30 MHz to 18 GHz range. The full Airtracer system is currently tailored (but not restricted) to the 2000 platform, but Saab is also offering scaled-down Airtracer Compact and Airtracer Lite versions for installation in other large special mission and smaller aircraft, respectively. A roll-on/roll-off version known as Airtracer Flex has also been proposed.