The market for airborne early-warning and control aircraft is expected
to grow, as airframes continue to age, said industry officials.
The average age of current AEW&C airframes is 17 years.
Users of AEW&C platforms are expected to upgrade these systems,
to extend their operational life as a much as possible. Meanwhile,
companies such as Boeing and Northrop Grumman are marketing new
replacement options, such as smaller jets with electronically-scanned
radar. Sixteen nations today operate approximately 220 AEW&C
An AEW&C aircraft typically consists of a large radar mounted
on a big jet, such as a Boeing 707 or 767. It is used by nations
to monitor portions of the airspace. One of the most widely used
systems today is the Boeing E-3 Sentry AWACS. Boeing officials said
the AWACS is expected to fly until 2035, while the company is positioning
its smaller 737 platform to become the replacement for the AWACS
in the future.
There are 70 AWACS around the world today. The United States is
leading the pack with 33, followed by NATO with 17, United Kingdom
with seven, Japan with four, France with four and Saudi Arabia with
For most countries outside NATO, AWACS is too expensive to purchase
and maintain, each platform costing at least $500 million and up,
depending on the features.
Allen Ashby, Boeing’s vice president for airborne intelligence,
surveillance and reconnaissance, said AWACS customers are planning
major enhancements to their platforms.
The United States has not yet decided exactly what platforms it
will buy to replace the AWACS, currently operated by the U.S. Air
Force. The service is funding a notional multi-sensor aircraft,
called the MC2A (multi-sensor command and control aircraft) program,
which would replace the AWACS, the signals-intelligence Rivet Joint
and the Joint STARS ground surveillance platforms. A test-bed currently
in development uses a 707 Boeing jet.
To AWACS customers and to nations seeking an AEW&C capability
for the first time, Boeing is offering a system that uses the smaller
737 jet as a platform and features Northrop Grumman’s multi-role
electronically scanned array (Mesa) radar. It is informally known
as Wedgetail, because that was the name of the Australian program
that selected the 737 system.
In contrast to the 30-foot diameter rotating radar-dome antenna
found in the AWACS, the Wedgetail system has a “top hat”
25-by-30-foot antenna. The Mesa has a steerable electronic beam,
which helps achieve uniform coverage out to 190 nautical miles,
said Ashby. An integrated identification friend-or-foe system is
combined with the primary radar.
Boeing is also promoting the potential capabilities of the AEW&C
system as a control platform for unmanned aerial vehicles, such
as the Global Hawk. “UAV control is downstream, some time
in the future,” said Ashby.
Boeing recently signed an agreement with Turkey for the purchase
of four Wedgetail-style AEW&C systems, a deal worth about $1.5
billion. Six Turkish companies will participate in the program as
subcontractors. The fist platform will be built at Boeing’s
plant in Seattle, while the rest will be produced in Turkey.
Boeing also is targeting South Korea, Italy and Spain as potential
According to Boeing, the 737’s operating cost is one third
of a 707. The company is marketing the aircraft as more than an
airborne radar. “It does get the air picture, but it looks
for cruise missiles as well,” said Ashby.
In the international AEW&C market, the Wedgetail system competes
in some nations against Northrop Grumman’s E-2C Hawkeye AEW&C
aircraft, which is the U.S. Navy’s airborne surveillance platform
deployed on aircraft carriers.
A future version, called the Advanced Hawkeye, will have an electronically
scanned array, which would replace the currently mechanically scanned
rotating radar. The company said the aircraft will keep its trademark
rotor dome and the new radar will be designed to fit within that
Outside the United States, the Hawkeye has been sold to France,
Taiwan, Japan, Singapore and Egypt. The company expects to deliver
three new aircraft to France and Taiwan in 2003 and 2004. Also,
Northrop Grumman is courting new customers in the United Arab Emirates,
Malaysia, Italy and the United Kingdom. Britain is considering the
Hawkeye for its Maritime Airborne Surveillance and Control program,
which is slated to launch in 2006.
The Advanced Hawkeye is expected to enter the U.S. Navy’s
fleet in 2009.
Northrop Grumman is implementing a new IFF (identification friend
or foe) system with a range of 300 nautical miles. The project engineers
will add a lot of geographic features to the system so that pilots
can ask for names, cities, roads and railroads, said Arthur Fischer,
project engineer for AEW programs.
IFF system for platforms flying over water can be tricky, said
Fischer. The next-generation RMP/Advanced Hawkeye will also have
theater missile defense capability, multi-sensor integration, a
new communications suite and generators.