Australia's Wedgetail begins make or break exercise

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Australia's Boeing 737-based Wedgetail airborne early warning and control aircraft is undergoing an operational evaluation as part of the Royal Australian Air Force's Exercise Arnhem Thunder. The results will help in determining the future of the troubled programme.

The aircraft's performance and the results of an independent assessment of its Northrop Grumman multirole electronically scanned array (MESA) radar by the USA's MIT Lincoln Laboratory will be used to determine a "viable way forward" for the programme, which is running over three years late.

"In the worst case, if no viable way forward can be found then the programme could be cancelled," the Department of Defence confirms.

Australia is the launch customer for Boeing's 737-based AEW&C system, with six Wedgetails on order. The programme has suffered problems with the MESA radar and BAE Systems Australia electronic support measures equipment, with Boeing now working towards delivering an initial capability with two aircraft in November.

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 © Boeing

The DoD says it is "doing everything we can to assist Boeing to achieve this date", but concedes there is still ongoing schedule risk.

All aspects of the Wedgetail system's performance, except for its electronic warfare equipment, are due to be evaluated during the exercise, which is being conducted in the Northern Territory from 20 April to 1 May. "Wedgetail's participation will enable Defence to conduct an operational evaluation of the initial capability to be offered by Boeing," the DoD says.

Australia late last year commissioned the MIT Lincoln Laboratory to look at the system's radar performance and assess whether it will meet performance requirements. The DoD expects to receive its report in early to mid-May, and to hold a Wedgetail summit meeting with Boeing in mid-year to determine the project's fate.

Despite its development problems, the DoD says it "remains optimistic that we can work with Boeing and Northrop Grumman to determine a viable path forward for the Wedgetail capability".

Canberra has cancelled two troubled major defence contracts since early 2008, respectively for its navy's Kaman Aerospace SH-2G(A) Super Seasprite helicopter and the army's Boeing Australia/Israel Aerospace Industries I-View 250 tactical unmanned air vehicle.