“It’s a good day, but we’ve still got some way to go,” AEW&C program head AVM Chris Deeble told me at the occasion of the ‘initial handover’ of the first two Wedgetail AEW&C aircraft to the RAAF this morning, but the relief in his demeanour was clear.
More than 40 months late and in the red to the tune of nearly $2 billion, Boeing’s 737-based AEW&C program is finally nearing a deliverable capability, albeit just a training one for the time being.
It was an interesting occasion for the fact that the two aircraft, A30-001 and A30-004, weren’t actually ‘handed over’ to the RAAF, hence the term ‘initial’ being used in the media releases from both sides. In effect, Boeing is lending the aircraft to the RAAF until next March when they will then be taken on to the ADF’s register, probably as part of the Commonwealth’s compensation package for the delay. Until then, Boeing must provide a pilot in command and a flight test engineer on board the aircraft for all flights, and they will retain their US civil ‘N’ registrations.
The project team, management and of course the crews are rapt to finally see some metal on the ramp – it’s been a long time coming! Originally intended for delivery in 2006 when signed for in 2000, the RAAF won’t see an operational capability until the delivery of four more Wedgetails with an operational and integrated EW and ESM suite in mid to late 2010 (then the first two will undergo a retrofit and upgrade). Allowing for a workup with these systems, the RAAF is unlikely to be able to deploy operationally for another six months or so after that, so in the meantime, flight and mission crews will train on and familiarise themselves with the aircraft’s other advanced systems in benign environments only.
Wedgetail promises much to the ADF. Even if it eventually delivers only 95 per cent of that promised, as has been mooted, it will still deliver an awesome capability. While performance figures and comparisons with other AEW&C platforms remain classified, the aircraft’s MESA radar has proven itself to have new levels of flexibility and capability, having the ability to simultaneously zoom in and ‘stare’ at a given slice of air and space while maintaining situational awareness in other quadrants, and to hand off its radar picture to otherwise ‘passive’ RAAF fighters and strikers, other surveillance aircraft, ships, and operations centres. It will certainly be a key node in the ADF’s future networked system of systems.
But a system is only as strong as its weakest link, and this is where AVM Deeble’s comment to me struck home. Apart from the EW and ESM issues, the radar and its integration with various other systems is still not yet as robust as it needs to be, with some sources rather simplistically claiming it needs regular ‘rebooting’, thus potentially leaving gaps in its coverage. This will need to be addressed before Wedgetail can be deemed fully operational.
Deeble in many ways was the ideal go-to-guy to manage the AEW&C project after the almost simultaneous departure of his predecessor and Boeing’s counterpart in 2006. He has rebuilt the project office’s rapport with Boeing, taking a firm yet softly-softly approach to the relationship and always describing it as a partnership – not once going off script. Boeing has written off nearly $2 billion of its own money on the project, and there were genuine fears in DMO during the dark days of 2006 that Boeing might cut its losses and walk away from Wedgetail. So Deeble has had to deal with all the development issues, delays, liquidated damages and the political fallout at home with this in mind.
But Boeing has so much more to lose than a dozen or two 737-based AEW&C aircraft sales. Many of the technologies developed for, and the trouble-shooting lessons learned from, Wedgetail will flow to the US Navy’s much larger P-8 Poseidon maritime surveillance and embryonic EP-X Electronic Intelligence programs for more than 150 aircraft, and the many potential foreign sales that will likely follow. So, despite the short term hip pocket pain and apart from the massive credibility hit it would take if it did walk away, Boeing knows there is far more than $2 billion at stake in the longer term!