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Farnborough 2018: What could replace the UK’s AWACS?

10th July 2018 - 10:58 GMT | by Grant Turnbull in London

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One of the key talking points at this year’s Farnborough air show will be the Royal Air Force’s growing desire to replace its ageing E-3D Sentry fleet, which could be articulated in the UK MoD’s upcoming Modernising Defence Programme.

In recent weeks British press and lawmakers have become increasingly vocal on the subject of replacing the geriatric Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) - with the Parliamentary defence committee recently lambasting the continuing decline in flying hours, readiness and availability.

It is believed that only one E-3D Sentry - which provides threat detection of adversary aircraft and situational awareness on friendly assets - is now available for frontline duties out of a total of six operational aircraft and one training aircraft.

On 26 June, the chairman of the defence committee, Julian Lewis MP, wrote a letter to the MoD to not only raise concerns about the state of the E-3D fleet, but also to call for a competition if a decision is made to replace the ISR platform. Recent reports have suggested that the E-7 Wedgetail from US aerospace giant Boeing is currently the favourite and could be acquired as a sole-source purchase.

‘It would be particularly inappropriate for a competition to be foregone in favour of Boeing,’ wrote Lewis, referring specifically to the recent trade spat between Boeing and Bombardier. He added that there was at least one ‘highly credible alternative to the Wedgetail’, likely referencing a platform with Saab’s Erieye radar integrated.

Unsurprisingly, industry is expected to use the Farnborough airshow – easily the biggest of the year – to demonstrate the capabilities it can offer to the RAF. And even more predictably, most companies contacted by Shephard have been keen to stress the need for a competition to ensure a fair fight.

At least two European options are available to the RAF; one from Swedish manufacturer Saab and potential options from Boeing’s rival Airbus. Saab’s latest generation airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft is marketed as the GlobalEye, which is being developed for the United Arab Emirates but could be replicated for other nations.

This jet – which first flew in March – is based on the long-range Bombardier Global 6000 business jet, which has commonality with the Express business jet that forms the basis of the Sentinel R1 already operated by the RAF. The GlobalEye incorporates a number of sensors, the most powerful of these being the active electronically scanned array (AESA) Erieye radar mounted on top of the fuselage.

This offers a significant capability leap compared with the distinctive dish-shaped AN/APY-1/2 mechanically scanned radar that adorns the existing AWACS. The radar can detect stealth targets from hundreds of kilometres away and still functions in contested jamming environments. A key concern for the current-generation AWACS is that its radar is not powerful enough to detect newer threats and its ability to operate in a contested battlespace would be limited.

‘Because of the limitations of the mechanically scanned radar, [the AWACS] has significant blind spots against emerging threat groups such as hyper sonic weapons, and low observable weapons and fighters,’ Justin Bronk, research fellow for combat airpower and technology at the Royal United Services Institute explained to Shephard.   

As well as the Global 6000, the Erieye has been mounted on several other aircraft including the Saab 340/2000 and the Embraer R-99 – the military designation for the Brazilian EMB-145. On the GlobalEye, detection capabilities of the Erieye are enhanced by the inclusion of a belly-mounted Seaspray AESA radar that permits maritime surveillance, allowing the detection of even small objects such as submarine periscopes. This could be an option to boost the Royal Air Force’s maritime surveillance capability, along with the introduction of the P-8A Poseidon.

‘Saab, as the one of the world’s leading suppliers of Airborne Surveillance and Air Battle Management systems, would enthusiastically pursue an open competition to replace the UK’s aging E-3D fleet, should the UK MoD choose to issue a requirement,’ said a Saab spokesperson.

Another European option could be from French aerospace manufacturer Airbus. At the Singapore airshow earlier this year the company floated the idea of a new family of ISR and maritime patrol aircraft based on the latest-generation A320neo airliner. This would compete with the already well-established Boeing 737 that has formed the basis of the increasingly successful P-8A Poseidon and E-7 Wedgetail.

One potential option could even be to modify a number of the RAF’s fleet of A330 multi role tanker transports (MRTTs) and fit a radar system, potentially even the Saab Erieye. An Airbus source confirmed recent reports that there had been discussions about the potential conversion of several airframes, not used in the core refuelling fleet to an AWACS-type platform.

The RAF is believed to have a preference for a larger jet with more operators on board, owing to its near 30-year experience with the Sentry, hence the A330 is a natural fit here. But the potential issue is that the aircraft would not only require extensive modification, but would also need to go through a significant air certification period that would unlikely give the RAF the rapid capability it desires.

In addition, relations between Airbus and the UK government have also soured in recent weeks with the company’s CEO Tom Enders being increasingly vocal on the damaging effect that Britain leaving the EU would have, accusing London of having ‘no clue’ how to execute Brexit. However, Airbus is still positive about involvement in a future AWACS replacement.

‘As the biggest supplier of large aircraft to the Royal Air Force, Airbus would welcome a competition to present a market leading and cost-effective solution for the RAF’s future AWACS requirements,’ said an official Airbus statement to Shephard.

‘Building on our successful experience in converting commercial aircraft into the world’s market-leading tanker, Airbus is working on further opportunities to use both the A330 and A320 as the basis for new mission aircraft,’ it added.

When asked by Shephard about the competition at a recent pre-Farnborough event held by the company, Dirk Hoke, CEO at Airbus Defence and Space, nodded to the fact the company is querying whether it is an actual competition or a single source procurement process.

Hoke said on the viability of a competition: 'We believe we can provide an alternative to the Wedgetail [which is] highly competitive and highly performing.'

But it all depends on the process and if it is in fact open: ‘we would definitely be open to compete.’

Which brings us back to the E-7 Wedgetail.

The E-7A is already in service with Australia, and has seen operational use above the skies of Iraq and Syria supporting coalition operations there against ISIS. The aircraft has a distinctive multirole electronically scanned radar (MESA) from Northrop Grumman mounted above the fuselage, similar in configuration to the Saab Erieye. The radar – which is significantly lower in drag than the AWACS – provides long range surveillance, Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) and maritime surveillance.

It does this through 288 high-power transmit/receive modules driving two side arrays, giving its distinctive ‘top hat’ appearance and more importantly, complete 360 degree coverage. Other operators of the platform include Turkey and South Korea, as well as a potential foreign military sale with Qatar. A key selling point for the UK would be its commonality with the 737-based P-8 Poseidon, with crew training, maintenance and logistics all being shared between the platforms.

It remains the most favoured option, despite recent criticisms from lawmakers.

All in all, the RAF has several highly-capable options to replace the AWACS fleet if it chooses to do so. Indeed, the number of options available to the RAF would make foregoing a competition an odd move, but not surprising considering the MoD's recent history. Ultimately, a sole-source purchase could have the potential to overcharge the taxpayer and – if a US system is chosen - leave out domestic suppliers affecting the retention of key skills in Britain at a time when they are needed the most.   

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