With Wedgetail AEW&C aircraft running ahead of schedule, Australia considers extra aircraft and UAV purchases

The Royal Australian Air Force is expecting the first flight of the Boeing 737-700IGW-based Wedgetail airborne early warning and control (AEW&C)aircraft by the first quarter of 2004 - and possibly earlier, with the project running an average six months ahead of schedule in most areas.

The Australian Department of Defence is simultaneously finalising an airborne surveillance study examining whether options for two plus an additional aircraft should be exercised. A decision is required for the first two options by next June.

As well as additional Wedgetails, the study is examining options to integrate Australia's planned purchase of Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned air vehicles into a common wide area architecture. This would allow operators aboard a Wedgetail to control the RQ-4's sensors and offers potential for the development of a joint ground-based command and control infrastructure for both aircraft.

Boeing earlier this month rolled out the first two 737s for conversion into Wedgetails, with modifications to begin in late March. Two other aircraft on order are due for production in late 2004/early 2005, with conversion to start in the second half of 2005 and early 2006.

Head of Australian airborne surveillance acquisition projects AVM Norman Gray says aircraft software development is at build three with five iterations remaining before release for operational use.

Two multirole electronically scanned array (MESA) radar systems have been built, says Northrop Grumman vice-president airborne surveillance systems Bill Adams. The first will go to Northrop Grumman's El Segundo facility for load testing, while a second will undergo factory testing until March, after which it will be prepared for handover to Boeing in May. The first MESA-equipped 737 will fly in early 2004 and is due for delivery to the RAAF in 2006.

Gray says that the airborne mission segment will undergo critical design review next month with this the final milestone before aircraft conversion.

Meanwhile, Northrop Grumman is hoping that Turkey will give a final endorsement early next month to proceed with its order for four 737AEW&Cs.

Additional reporting by Paul Lewis in Washington DC

Source: Flight International