Confirming one of the worst-kept secrets in UK defence procurement, late March’s £1.5 billion ($1.96 billion) order for five Boeing 737NG-based E-7 airborne early warning and control system aircraft was nevertheless a welcome development for the Royal Air Force (RAF).
A lengthy lack of investment in the service’s current E-3D Sentry fleet – adapted 707s – had eroded serviceability and capability to an alarming point before word of the planned E-7 buy emerged last year. The non-competitive nature of the proposed deal sparked significant outcry from potential rival suppliers, but in truth, no credible alternatives existed.
While critics will lambast the procurement decision regardless, the Ministry of Defence and RAF should be applauded for focusing on a system that will actually work as advertised. Stung by debacles like the UK’s British Aerospace Nimrod AEW3 and MRA4 maritime patrol aircraft development efforts, officials maintained a focus on minimising risks by acquiring a combat-proven system.
As lead customer for the AEW-evolved “Wedgetail”, Australia endured a torrid time in introducing the complex system, which long graced its “Projects of Concern” list. But once technical snags were resolved, its fleet reached final operational capability status in May 2015, and has proved valuable over Iraq and Syria.
While its purchase of nine 737-based P-8 maritime patrol aircraft afforded little industrial opportunity for the UK, Marshall Aerospace and Defence Group’s selection to convert its E-7s will support key engineering jobs, with training and support also needed. This is another positive.
Challenges will no doubt arise, but for now, the main question associated with the Sentry’s replacement would seem to be: what to name it in RAF use?