Boeing Defence UK has named STS Aviation Services as its conversion partner for the Royal Air Force’s (RAF’s) future fleet of five 737NG-based E-7A Wedgetail surveillance aircraft, after Marshall Aerospace and Defence Group withdrew from the project.

Announcing the selection on 20 May, Boeing said the narrowbodies will be prepared for military service using a hangar at Birmingham airport which was previously occupied by Monarch Aircraft Engineering (MAEL).

E-7A Wedgetail

Source: Crown Copyright

Royal Air Force will receive five of the 737NG-based surveillance aircraft

“This work will provide good jobs for the many skilled aerospace engineers and mechanics in and around Birmingham,” says Boeing Defence UK managing director Anna Keeling. STS expects to employ around 90 new personnel in support of the activity, which will also involve Boeing staff with experience of prior Wedgetail conversions performed for Australia, South Korea and Turkey.

Boeing says the programme’s lead pair of aircraft – low-hour examples sourced second-hand from the commercial market – already “have been stripped to their frames” in preparation for their future role as airborne early warning and control system and battle management assets. This work has been conducted in the USA.

Following the first aircraft’s arrival at the STS conversion site next January, Boeing expects to be able to start deliveries to the RAF in 2023. Extensive updates will include adding a Northrop Grumman Mesa radar atop the single-aisle’s fuselage, integrating work stations for 10 onboard mission system operators, and installing self-protection equipment.

STS Aviation Group last October acquired the Birmingham hangar – which can accommodate up to two widebodies – following the collapse of MRO specialist MAEL.

Despite the switch from earlier plans to conduct conversion work at Marshall’s Cambridge airport site, Boeing says its original delivery schedule for the RAF’s Wedgetails remains on track, with all work to be completed by 2026.

“Marshall remains a valued supplier to Boeing, and the two companies will continue their partnership on other programmes, like the P-8,” it notes. The company had last July received a risk-reduction contract linked to its planned involvement.

The UK Ministry of Defence in March 2019 signed a fixed, £1.5 billion ($1.8 billion) contract to replace the RAF’s aged fleet of 707-based E-3D Sentry aircraft, which are operated from its Waddington base in Lincolnshire.

Meanwhile, Boeing also has announced that the incoming type will be protected using a new integrated defensive aids system (IDAS) to be supplied by Leonardo.

The IDAS equipment will be installed around Leonardo’s modular advanced platform protection system architecture, and use an updated version of the company’s electronic warfare suite controller already integrated with Australia’s Wedgetails. Thales UK also will supply Elix-IR threat warning systems and Vicon XF countermeasures dispensers, Boeing says.