PETER LA FRANCHI / CANBERRA The $1.9 billion Wedgetail airborne early warning and control project, running six months ahead of schedule, is make or break for the Australian Defence Forces

Air Vice Marshal Norman Gray sits in his office in the Defence Headquarters in Canberra, pointing at an artist's impression of the Boeing Wedgetail airborne early warning aircraft on the wall above his conference table. The subject is the communications antenna farm that will cover most of the aircraft.

"The biggest thing about the aeroplane," he says, "is that it doesn't look like the pictures. Artists are never very good at putting on things that make the aeroplanes look a bit ugly." The picture, he says, "has some of the antennas". Over near his desk there is a large model of the aircraft. This, Gray says, has none of the communications antenna array included at all.

When the prototype Wedgetail is rolled out in 12 months from now, Gray says, the contrast between the smooth lines of the artist's impressions and that of the model makers will be more than apparent. The Wedgetail, he says, might be the largest member of Australia's raptor bird family, but the new airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) platform "is a bit more like a porcupine".

"You've got a string of antennas along the top, there is a bunch of antennas along the bottom. There are even antennas on the engine nacelles and of course there are the ESM [electronic support measures] antennas on the wingtips and on the top of the tail."

As the head of airborne surveillance projects in the Australian Defence Materiel Organisation (DMO), Gray has overseen the Wedgetail programme since contract signature in December 2000, and he and his team of 80 project officials have at least another three years ahead of them. The two-year effort so far, he says, is paying off.




Breaking a bad run

In marked contrast with a near-constant record of disasters on most major Australian defence acquisition projects over the past decade, Wedgetail is an average six months ahead of schedule. "I could just say it is brilliant management on my part," Gray jokes, but he is well aware that plenty of challenges remain.

Gray's comparison of the aircraft to a porcupine has a metaphorical significance, as Wedgetail is a make-or-break acquisition for the Australian Defence Forces. If Gray's team continues to get it right, the Royal Australian Air Force will get two and possibly three extra aircraft on top of the four-aircraft programme. Similarly, Boeing and radar supplier Northrop Grumman bolster prospects for the same AEW&C solution in the international market.

With an approved budget cap of A$3.5 billion ($1.9 billion), the project is already one of the most expensive military acquisitions an Australian government has ever committed to. If it goes wrong, it could destabilise Australia's defence spending plans well into the next decade. Handling porcupines is clearly a measured art.

The Wedgetail AEW&C aircraft combines Boeing's 737-700 Increased Gross Weight airliner - essentially a Boeing Business Jet - and the Northrop Grumman Multirole Electronically Scanned Array (MESA) radar. The programme is structured around two build phases, each comprising two aircraft, with a third and possibly a fourth phase dependent upon whether the government gives approval to take up the additional aircraft options. The deadline for the first two extra aircraft is next June.

Gray says the gains on the development schedule are being seen in most of the mission-system segments. "We keep telling people it is hard to put an actual figure on the total project because, as you can imagine in something this complex, there is a range of parallel activities all running at different rates. [However] we have been through the bulk of the design reviews. The first hardware is being made and all the software [development] is under way."

Boeing Commercial Airplanes rolled out the first two green aircraft in early November, six months earlier than planned. The lead aircraft was formally handed over to Boeing Integrated Defence Systems on 27 November and is now in Delaware being fitted with additional long-range fuel tanks before it returns to Seattle early next year.

Pending approvals following the final critical design review this month for the full aircraft mission segment, modifications to the first aircraft will start on 28 March and are expected to take most of next year. The second green aircraft is being stored by Boeing until May, when it will follow the first into the modification programme.

The first two production MESA radars built by Northrop Grumman are complete and one began range trials at Baltimore at the end of October. According to Gray, the original project schedule had not envisaged range work before mid-2003, with delivery to Boeing late the same year. The schedule gains will mean handover to Boeing in mid-2003. "We will be tracking the radar performance closely," Gray says.

Critical design reviews for aircraft-modification hardware, set for next February, have already been completed. Similarly, the critical design review for the mission computing segment was meant to take place late this month, but was cleared in June/July. The mission navigation segment critical design review was carried out in October, 10 months ahead of target.

The Wedgetail mission system software is running around three months ahead of schedule. Of eight planned iterations before aircraft delivery, two are already complete, while Build 3, focusing on middleware and radar interface applications, began in September and is expected to conclude in March. Build 4 is in its preliminary phases.

Despite the fast pace, the delivery targets for the handover of the two prototype aircraft to the RAAF remain fixed at November 2006. Gray says: "There is no intention to try and pull delivery forward. What we want to do is go into the testing programme with a bit of schedule up our sleeves to cater for any problems. If it all goes 100%, then that delivery might come forward, but that is not the intent."




Revealing the risks

Gray says the schedule made its initial gains during the tender process when rival bids from Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon were each awarded A$8.5 million by the government to carry out initial design studies. The lesson is that "you need to spend money to sort out the scope of something before you go to acquisition".

Gray says that the approach has not been widely used in the military sector on new aerospace projects, but meant the Australian project was "in a much better position when we went to contract, knowing exactly where the risks were and having retired some of the risks. There were things then that were taken out of the scope before we went to contract because those were big risk drivers, not capability drivers." A more traditional development programme, he says, would not have revealed hidden risk elements until well into a contract and the beginning of design reviews. "Then you spend several months sorting out what you are going to do about it," Gray says.

The relationship between Boeing, Northrop Grumman, key subcontractors and his own team, has also played a major role, Gray says. "Boeing is very committed to this programme. They want this to be an international product line; consequently they are very focused on proving as early as they can that this works. It is in Boeing's interests to make sure that this programme is up and flying at the earliest opportunity. It is not a matter of delivering it early that is important to the international market, it is seeing it flying and working that is important. That also helps to bring it forward."

Gray says that a detailed business partnering agreement negotiated after the signing of acquisition contracts in December 2000 has provided a high degree of transparency in the development programme. Boeing and the DMO run parallel analysis teams on the ground at most facilities involved in the project to monitor several hundred performance metrics.

"We have deep and early insight into what Boeing is doing. Letting a customer in that close has taken a bit of developing, but we have got a true partnering arrangement set up that allows us to see things much earlier than the design reviews. When problems appear, we cut them off long before they get to design review."

Gray acknowledges the schedule gains have not been without incident, including interpretation of the Australian function-based specification of aircraft capabilities. He says this issue came to the fore with Northrop Grumman in relation to the performance targets for the radar array. "We resolved those early before there was too much wasted time. There were a few of those issues for both Boeing and Northrop."

Design of the communications suite included similar interpretation problems. Gray says the functional specification described purely how RAAF intended to communicate, rather than presenting a set architecture requirement. "The challenge in getting to design review is to say well, how do we interpret that [functional specification] in number of radio channels, type of Link 16 implementation and so on? That was one of the big workload areas as we tried to interpret all that in the early part of this year. If we had waited until design review to get the insight, we would probably have been back into a six-month rework programme because some of it was so open to interpretation."

The final communications suite will comprise "a dozen UHFs, six VHFs, three HFs, two satcoms and Link 16".

A joint Australian and Boeing project office, the Electromagnetic Compatibility Advisory Board, has been meeting since mid-2001 to sort out electromagnetic interference issues emerging from the need to squeeze 85 different communications antennas as well as the MESA radar on to the 737 airframe. Gray says: "There is a lot of modelling that has been done as part of the design work on cosine interference and there were particular areas of concern."

Because of the inherent high risk involved, management of mission system software development is the subject of additional scrutiny. Gray says 80 top-level and 250 different lower-level metrics are separately tracked, while peer reviews of code development occur on a weekly basis. Boeing also has a back-up analysis team at its Anaheim facility providing independent review of work carried out by the main Seattle-based software development team.

Processing capacity

The value of the monitoring and the benefits of the functional system specification were brought home in a preliminary software design review earlier this year for the mission computing segment, says Gray. The functional specification for the Wedgetail mission-system local-area network stipulates that the central processing unit must have 50% unused capacity on aircraft acceptance by the RAAF. Gray says that the preliminary design reviewrevealed a major blow-out against that target and resulted in a requirement to re-baseline the motherboard.

"Because we didn't specify a computer and a motherboard it becomes Boeing's problem. If we had written a technical specification, we would have found that we would either have a system that was going to be delivered with no spare capacity or we would be liable to pay to fix it. This way, this was their initial design [and] they said: 'The initial design doesn't work, it needs an upgrade'. So we don't get that obsolescence problem," says Gray.

The first of the prototype aircraft is expected to fly in the next 12-16 months, depending on decisions to be made by March. According to Gray, "there are two different approaches that Boeing can take to the modification programme and we are working with them in looking at both.

"One way would result in an earlier first flight, which would also allow an earlier look at the structural issues, if there are any, but would be less efficient in terms of cost because it means you would do part of the modification, fly the aircraft, bring it back, rip it apart, do more of the modification, fly it again for the next bit. The other way is to do the bulk of the modification work first and then fly later."

The early option would see a flight in the final quarter of next year, while the alternative would see a flight at the end of the final quarter of 2004.

Gray says: "If we can get all the stuff produced fast enough, in other words keep that six months up our sleeve, then you are better off delaying the first flight and doing more of the modification work because that is much more cost effective.

"If some of that stuff from the subcontractors, the suppliers, to meet this design isn't going to be available to do that, then rather than wait. We would be better off spending the extra money flying early to start resolving the risks." Flying earlier is also attractive, says Gray, in terms of helping the project stay ahead on the trials programme, with the airworthiness testing and US Federal Aviation Administration certification of the modified 737-700 airframe a priority. This is not seen as a technical risk, he says, with Boeing having completed 2,000h of windtunnel testing.

However, Gray says that Boeing is not contractually obliged to have airworthiness testing completed until mid-2005. Given the current schedule gains, he says, either modification programme approach would still result in Boeing being where Gray wants it to be - artfully rolling out his porcupines ahead of the curve.

Source: Flight International