U.S. Air Force Orders First Two E-7 AEW Aircraft From Boeing

 - March 1, 2023, 5:51 AM
An impression shows an E-7 in U.S. Air Force colors, wearing the ‘OK’ tailcode of the 552nd Air Control Wing at Tinker AFB, Oklahoma. (Photo: Boeing)

Boeing has been awarded a not-to-exceed $1.2 billion undefinitized contract for the U.S. Air Force’s E-7A rapid prototype program, which is managed by the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center. Under the deal announced this week, the company will develop and produce two E-7 development aircraft, paving the way for series production. The initial work associated with this contract is due to be complete by August 2024.

Faced with the need to replace at least part of its aging Boeing 707 airliner-based E-3B/C/G Sentry fleet, the U.S. Air Force identified the 737 Airborne Early Warning and Control, designated E-7A, as the only suitable solution, and a single-source acquisition plan was announced in April last year.

“The E-7 is a proven platform,” said Stu Voboril, E-7 program vice president and general manager. “It is the only advanced aircraft that is capable of meeting the U.S. Air Force’s near-term Airborne Early Warning & Control requirement while enabling integration across the joint force.”

Often referred to as the Wedgetail, reflecting the Australian procurement program name, the E-7A has been sold to Australia, South Korea, Turkey, and the UK. It entered service with the Royal Australian Air Force in 2012. Based on a 737-700ER airframe, the E-7 features a Northrop Grumman Multi-role Electronically Scanned Array (MESA) radar that provides 360-degree air and maritime surveillance out to a range of over 320nm. The antenna also acts as a passive electronic intelligence receiver. With a range of communication systems, the type is a key node in the airborne battle management system, and its employment of open architecture allows it to be easily upgraded to stay ahead of threat advances.

An important benefit of basing the type on the 737-700 is a global supply chain to reduce maintenance and logistics costs, while also leveraging existing design, certification, and modification processes.

The E-3 Sentry entered service in 1977 and, while its systems have been regularly updated, the airframe and TF33 engines are in their fifth decade of service. The Air Force currently operates 31 Sentries, mostly with five squadrons of the 552nd Air Control Wing at Tinker AFB in Oklahoma, plus squadrons in the Pacific theater at Kadena AB, Okinawa, and Elmendorf AFB, Alaska. Fifteen of the fleet are planned for retirement in the next year or so. The remaining aircraft are expected to serve for a while longer, with no decision on their fate or replacement yet announced.