A Royal Australian Air Force E-7A Wedgetail early warning aircraft will use its highly effective radar system to search for missiles launched from hundreds of kilometers inside Russia and Belarus as it watches over Ukraine’s supply lines from Europe.
The chief of the RAAF, Air Marshal Robert Chipman, tells The Strategist that the US decision to call in the Wedgetail to help protect the flow of military and humanitarian supplies Ukraine relies on as it battles Russia’s invasion demonstrates the aircraft’s effectiveness.
Chipman says the Wedgetail will provide early warning of any missile attack on depots and supply routes into Ukraine that run through Poland and other neighbouring countries. It will track the missiles and assess where they might hit, increasing defenders’ chances of bringing them down.
The Australian public sees the RAAF’s fast jets at air displays and giant transport aircraft on the news in a crisis, but most people would know little about the extraordinary role and capabilities of the Wedgetail.
The aircraft will operate from Germany for six months, and the very fact that it can carry out its crucial surveillance without entering the airspace of Ukraine, Russia or Belarus demonstrates the effectiveness of its electronic systems.
‘It’s not deploying to Europe to do an air battle-management role, but as an airborne sensor with a fantastic capability to detect missiles that might be directed outside of Ukraine towards some of the supply hubs providing Ukraine’s lifeline,’ says Chipman. ‘I think they would see Australia’s deployment as a very valuable contribution to secure their supplies, even as they know that it’s not providing any direct support to the battlespace.
‘It’s protecting Europe in the unlikely event that Russia would choose to escalate the war.’
The length of warning time the Wedgetail can provide depends on the type of missile and whether it’s been fired from an expected location, Chipman says. ‘But some missiles will be airborne for 20 minutes to get to a destination over a couple of hundred miles, so that gives you a reasonable chance to detect them.‘
That warning gives ground-based defences extra time to engage the incoming missiles and gives people in the target area time to disperse into shelters to minimise loss of life.
The Wedgetail has a crew of two pilots with another 10 aviators on its surveillance and communications equipment. Up to 100 Australian Defence Force personnel will accompany the aircraft to Germany to maintain and sustain it.
The Wedgetail was once on Australia’s defence projects of concern list. But Wing Commander Warren Haynes, who commands Number 2 Squadron which operates the aircraft, says years of effort have made it arguably the world’s most advanced battle-management system. Haynes, who will lead the deployment, says the Wedgetail is the perfect platform to help protect Europe’s humanitarian gateway into Ukraine.
Chris Deeble, who now heads the Defence Department’s Capability Acquisition and Sustainment Group, first played a role in the Wedgetail project in 2006. He says that for Defence and the companies that produced the aircraft and the radar systems, dealing with the most complex technical issues and getting it into operation was extremely hard.
Early tests as the technology was assembled were far from promising. The industry partners were losing money and pressure mounted for the project to be abandoned.
An aircraft that was supposed to enter service by 2006 wasn’t operational until 2010. But those backing the Wedgetail persevered, and the capability it ultimately brought was a key to making the RAAF the world’s best small tactical air force, Deeble says. ‘It’s not a slow, incremental change to warfighting capability. It’s a step-function jump in capability. When you add that to the RAAF’s other aircraft, you get a capability that is much greater than the sum of the parts. It doesn’t get much better than that.’
The Wedgetail is an important node in any network, says Deeble. ‘It’s a significant sensor in any fight, a critical aggregator of information and dissemination of information, taking information in, adding its own sensor and other information, and being able to push that out to the fighter force.’
US fliers and their commanders have been deeply impressed by the Wedgetail’s performance on operations. Based on Boeing’s 737 airliner and developed for the RAAF, the aircraft proved highly successful on missions over Iraq and Syria during the war on the Islamic State terror group and was clearly superior to US equivalents such as the ageing E-3 Sentry airborne warning and control system aircraft, or AWACS. Over Iraq, the Wedgetail operated as a battlespace manager directing fighter aircraft and linking up attack aircraft with tankers.
The request to deploy the Wedgetail in its different role for Ukraine came to Australia from the US military’s European Command in Stuttgart, Germany.
Last August, US Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall was hosted in Canberra by Chipman, then the new chief of the RAAF. A key focus of Kendall’s trip was on modernisation, and he discussed options with his Australian counterparts on how to collaboratively develop the air and space capabilities both countries needed. Kendall told a media briefing that the American decision to acquire the E-7A Wedgetail command-and-control aircraft was an example of what the US could learn from Australia. ‘This demonstrates that there’s very much a two-way street,’ Kendall said, ‘that we depend upon our partners just as much as they depend upon us in any number of ways.’
In December, Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles and Foreign Minister Penny Wong met US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in Washington for the annual AUSMIN consultations.
A statement released after the talks said the two countries committed to work closely on developing the Wedgetail, including through the training of US Air Force personnel by the RAAF in Australia.
Haynes says some Americans are already serving with the unit in Australia and 70 to 80 will be trained overall. They include flight-deck crew, electronic-warfare operators and technical trades and support staff that are all needed to put a mission together.
Britain has also opted to buy the Wedgetail and 20 to 25 Royal Air Force personnel are now serving with 2 Squadron. Haynes says he and many other RAAF personnel had trained with US and British squadrons and this is an opportunity to return the favour. ‘We’re paying back what was afforded to us when we were trying to stand up a new capability.’
Haynes believes that after years of effort by the RAAF, industry and other defence partners to integrate new technology into the aircraft, the Wedgetail is now the best of its type in the world. ‘What we provide is a magnitude never probably seen before on any command-and-control aircraft. The ability of its crew and the aircraft to sustain operations and get the job done across multiple domains is probably unsurpassed at this point.’
Its advanced multi-role electronically scanned array (MESA) radar provides a very long range, unrestricted 360° view around the aircraft. According to publicly available sources, the MESA radar can track 180 targets and carry out 24 intercepts at once.
Chipman says that if Australia hadn’t persevered with the Wedgetail’s development, the Americans would probably not have ultimately bought the aircraft.
‘This was an Australian idea, an aircraft built to Australian specifications to meet an Australian requirement. The manufacturing was done by Boeing in the US and by Northrop Grumman for the radar and BAE Systems for the electronic-warfare system. So, a coalition of companies came together to deliver the aircraft, but it was to an Australian specification.’
Chipman says that in terms of fifth-generation technology, the Wedgetail has very effective sensors and it can use and share the picture it builds through modern datalink technology. ‘It’s not a stealthy platform, but it brings fifth-generation technologies into our air combat system. It’s an enabler of the fifth-generation air combat system that we fight today. It fits very comfortably in with the F-35, Super Hornet and Growler mix.’
The Wedgetail is the centrepiece of a system that includes aircraft, ground-based, maritime and space-based sensors and other capabilities. As the technology is refined, a goal is for the Wedgetail to seamlessly feed information to aircraft and other units on operations so that they can stay stealthy and avoid having to send out detectable signals.
Deeble says it is a ‘gem’.
Brendan Nicholson is executive editor of The Strategist.
This was first published by ASPI on 26 October 2023 and then republished by them on 28 December 2023.
Photo Credit: Australian Department of Defence.