The UK will acquire two highly capable airborne radar systems without the necessary aircraft to mount them on, a result of the country’s decision to rescope the acquisition of the E-7 Wedgetail Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) platforms from an initial five down to just three units.

Once in service, each aircraft will act as an airborne command and control (C2) node, able to coordinate aircraft operating over a vast area and detect potential threats. Central to this is the MESA surveillance radar, manufactured by US defence prime Northrop Grumman, which when installed on the Boeing 737-based host forms the distinctive ‘wedge’, from which comes the name.  

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.

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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.

“It was decided that production and delivery of all five MESA radars would continue as planned, allowing a saving/offset of initial procurement and sustainment spares from the overall programme cost,” stated Defence Minister James Cartlidge, in a 4 May parliamentary written response.  

UK E-7 savings minimal, despite losing 40% of planned fleet

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 Ministry of Defence (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 UK E-7 fleet is expected to enter service from 2024, with the type, already in service with Australia, South Korea, and Turkey, selected by the US as part of its own efforts to modernise its airborne C2 capability.