Northrop's E-2 Hawkeye is operated by seven customers, only two of which have aircraft carriers. More countries operate the "Hummer" than any one of the other AEW platforms, but the E-2 is regarded as a niche player within a niche market. Almost every other aircraft flies faster, goes higher and stays up longer, but for its operators the Hawkeye was the best - sometimes only - AEW option available at the time.
But time moves on, and the airborne early warning and control market has bloomed. Where there was once just the big-jet E-3 AWACS and twin-prop E-2 Hawkeye, there are now the Boeing 737 AEW&C, Embraer EMB-145SA, IAI/Gulfstream G550 CAEW and Saab Ericsson Erieye. And there are others.
The Hawkeye's hold to the market has been eroding. Israel retired its E-2Cs, selling them to Mexico, and is replacing them with G550s. Singapore has ordered the Israeli-equipped CAEW to replace its Hawkeyes. Now Northrop thinks it can get back into the market with the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye under development for the US Navy.
The "AHE" addresses some of the Hawkeye's key limitations. A new solid-state radar with electronic scanning provides "true overland" capability, expanded surveillance volume and the ability to detect smaller targets, such as cruise missiles. This is essential to air operations and missile defence as US Navy carriers operate closer to shore, but gives the E-2D more of the capabilities land-based customers require.
Aerial refuelling capability will be added to the E-2 in 2009, for the first time in the aircraft's almost 50-year history, and will more than double the Hawkeye's endurance. Northrop is also offering a non-folding wet wing to extend endurance for land-based operators. How well the crew will cope with 8h-plus missions inside the Hawkeye's cramped fuselage remains to be seen, but at least the E-2D's new glass cockpit will enable the non-flying pilot to act as a fourth mission operator.
Some key competitions are coming up that could determine whether the Hawkeye is still a contender in the AEW&C market, UAE and India among them. But the US Navy is committed. New E-2Ds are to begin replacing E-2Cs on its carrier decks from 2011, and will work alongside F/A-18E/F and F-35 strike fighters equipped with the latest active-array radars. Not bad for a design that entered service in 1964 and, externally at least, looks little different today.
The original E-2A Hawkeye...and today's E-2C Hawkeye 2000