Northrop Grumman is considering an airborne early warning (AEW) version of the planned new Fairchild 728JET regional jet as a possible alternative platform to its smaller E-2C Hawkeye and as a lower-cost competitor to the Boeing 737.

The company's Integrated Systems and Aerostructures (ISA) sector has begun a study of larger jet-powered platforms to accommodate a new suite of AEW sensors from 2005. It requires an aircraft capable of 8h mission endurance, offering reduced life-cycle costs and at least 50% more capacity than the E-2C and room for future systems growth.

"In talks with our customers, we find there is a desire to go to a larger platform to provide more workspace," says Gary O'Loughlin, Northrop Grumman's AEW director international business development, "and the jet we looked at - the 728 - falls into the category of being able to take a good AEW architecture. The platform has good economics and payload capacity to grow."

The move follows the loss of a series of AEW competitions to jet-powered aircraft, such the Ericsson Erieye-equipped Embraer EMB-145 in Greece. Australia more recently selected the 737-700 fitted with the Multi-role Electronically Scanned Array (MESA) from ISA's sister Electronic Sensors and Systems Sector.

Northrop Grumman has also looked at the Bombardier BRJ-X, but the aircraft is not yet launched and it is unclear whether it will be available by 2005. With a number of mid- to long-term AEW requirements emerging in Italy and South-East Asia, O'Loughlin says: "Now is the time we've got to start working and getting up to speed."

The company is considering a number of radar options, including a new phased array set for demonstration on a Lockheed Martin C-130 testbed next year and which is being proposed for the US Navy's Advanced Hawkeye. An interim solution is the hybrid mechanical/electronically scanned Advanced UHF, which Northrop Grumman unsuccessfully bid to Australia, installed on a C-130J.

It is also considering the MESA system, which could be housed in a 737-type oblong dorsal mounting or a non-rotating rotordome.

O'Loughlin adds: "We intend to beat life-cycle costs by a margin that catches people's attention - that's why the 728 will have an advantage over the 737. The disadvantage is it's still a paper aeroplane and we can't put any firm proposals on the table between now and next year."

Source: Flight International