Wedgetail woes may be over for Boeing

 - November 14, 2009, 5:03 AM

Boeing is making the long-delayed delivery of the Wedgetail airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft to the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) via the Dubai Airshow this week. The first of the six 737-based aircraft has arrived for display at the static park, where invited visitors will be able to go onboard. The fourth aircraft for the RAAF is also flying to Australia this month, in time for a handover ceremony “down under” on November 24.

RAAF chief Air Marshall Mark Binskin told AIN here yesterday that the official acceptance would take place early next year and that he hoped to achieve initial operating capability (IOC) late next year. He said Boeing subcontractor BAE Systems is still working hard to develop and deliver the Wedgetail’s electronic support measures (ESM), “but we don’t need the ESM to start training our aircrews.”

As for the unique multirole electronically scanned array (MESA) surveillance radar, supplied by Northrop Grumman, Binskin said an independent analysis commissioned by the Australian government from MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory concluded that its design is sound and the development path is valid. “We’re confident that it will get there,” he added.

Binskin told the Dubai International Air Chiefs Conference (DIAC) here yesterday that it had taken nine years to reach this stage of the Wedgetail program. Australia was the launch customer for what became a troubled program, on which Boeing has taken successive financial writeoffs. Boeing has also taken orders for the Wedgetail from Turkey and Korea, each of which has signed for four.

Tim Norgart, Boeing’s director of business development for ASW and ISR systems, told AIN that an exercise in Australia last spring in which RAAF crews flew the Wedgetail “was a turning point for them. The aircraft did very well.” It flew six sorties and controlled multiple engagements by RAAF fighters. The radar’s maritime surveillance modes were also demonstrated during Exercise Arnhem Thunder.

Binskin described seven basic requirements for Australia’s new AEW&C platform. These were the flexibility to control a spectrum of missions from humanitarian relief to high-end warfighting; interoperability, especially with U.S. and NATO forces; (quick) responsiveness; global deployment capability with two weeks of self-contained operations before the arrival of logistics support; versatility, meaning that the system must perform equally well in the air defense and maritime surveillance roles, and that it must be able to import and fuse data from offboard sources; persistence, meaning that it must be air-refuelable to increase the time on station; and survivability, through the electronic warfare self-protection system combined with an ability to quickly fly out of harm’s way. “The new platform gives us all that,” he told the conference.

At the end of his presentation, Binskin fielded a question about the Wedgetail delays from Maj. Gen. Mohd bin Swaidan, commander of the air force of the United Arab Emirates. “I’ll talk to you offline about that,” the RAAF chief told his counterpart. The UAE has been evaluating three AEW&C aircraft: the Wedgetail; the Northrop Grumman E-2D Hawkeye; and the Saab Erieye system on a Saab 2000 platform.

With the Australian delivery hurdle about to be surmounted, Boeing is sounding increasingly confident about the Wedgetail program. “It’s the next generation in AEW–a great capability for a big market,” Norgart told AIN. “And the platform is the 737, which is the world’s most reliable jet,” he added.