The cost of the two new Multi-Role Electronically Scanned Array (MESA) airborne radars being procured by the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) originally due to be mounted on the now-cancelled fourth and fifth E-7 Wedgetail Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) platforms has been revealed to be £120m.
The UK has been mostly without AEW&C capability since it retired its fleet of E-3D Sentry aircraft in 2021, with the aspiration that the E-7 Wedgetail would be introduced from 2023.
Delays have already pushed this timeline back by 12 months, and the fleet suffering 40% cuts even before it enters service.
It was recently revealed that the UK would be going ahead with the acquisition of the high-end radars from manufacturer Northrop Grumman despite having reduced the planned buy of E-7 aircraft down to just three airframes.
However, when the decision was taken to cut the purchase of five E-7 Wedgetails down to three aircraft, MESA radars for the fourth and fifth aircraft were already in production.
According to Northrop Grumman, the MESA radar can dynamically adjust to emerging threats, and ‘nearly double’ detection range by focusing energy towards a specific location, while maintaining a full background of the ongoing battlespace.
The MESA system also has higher update rate for tracking and is able to monitor airborne and maritime targets simultaneously, including the ability to revisit high profile targets at rapid rates.
James Cartlidge, Minister for Defence Procurement, stated on 19 May that the cost for the procurement of each MESA radar was £60m.
“Parts from the radars originally planned for aircraft four and five will be retained for spares allowing a saving/offset of initial procurement and future sustainment requirements from the overall programme cost. They will also add resilience to the spares supply chain to benefit aircraft availability,” Cartlidge said in a parliamentary written response.
Shrinking fleet numbers
According to figures released in December last year three E-7 Wedgetail AEW&C aircraft due to enter service with the UK Royal Air Force (RAF) will cost £630m each, despite savings resulting from reducing the planned buy down from an initial five platforms.
In reworking the planned acquisition, the UK MoD shaved £265m off the expected programme cost for the three aircraft to £1.89bn, down from £2.155bn originally.
The figures came to light in a 13 December parliamentary written response from the UK Government and did not take into account the estimated forecast savings from long-term sustainment through reduced support costs as a result of the reduction in fleet size.
The first E-7 Wedgetail is expected to be delivered to the UK MoD in 2024, following completion of its flight test programme and initial certification activity. It is expected that initial operating capability will follow three to six months after delivery, exact timing of which will be confirmed when the programme’s Full Business Case is submitted in mid-2023.
With MESA radars four and five being delivered, it leaves open the potential that a rethink could reintroduce the airframes previously cut from the programme. However, financial pressures in the MoD, and accusations of a “broken” defence procurement system by the PAC, continue to be influencing near- and medium-term factors.