In September 2014, a RAAF E-7A Wedgetail early warning and control aircraft arrived in the Middle East to join the war against the Islamic State terror group. Soon after its crew set off on a familiarisation flight, they were told a US E-3 Sentry aircraft that was to direct operations over Iraq was unserviceable and were asked to take over the operation.
Number 2 Squadron commander Warren Haynes says the crew had been extensively prepared for the mission in simulators and on exercises and it was quickly assessed that their workup training made this complex operation safe for them.
The crew transitioned seamlessly from a ‘famil’ exercise to an operation, Wing Commander Haynes tells The Strategist.
RAAF chief Robert Chipman says the Wedgetail joined Australia’s Air Task Group as a battlespace manager with tasks including directing fighter aircraft and linking them up with tankers—’orchestrating the fight, bringing it all together’.
Air Marshal Chipman says the aircraft surprised many by performing seamlessly with how the E-3s operated, using the same tactics, techniques and procedures, with a radar able to see a long way and to build a very good picture, and with a strong communication suite. Suddenly there was an E-7 on the block with half as many crew as an E-3 and a much smaller airframe. ‘It was a lot more reliable than the E-3s and was doing at least as good a job.’
It wasn’t always so. The Wedgetail was an early addition to the public version of the Defence Department’s list of projects of concern in January 2008 and it remained there until December 2012.
Now a RAAF Wedgetail has been sent to Europe to help safeguard Ukraine’s vital supply lines. The Wedgetail is operating from Germany and will not enter the airspace of Ukraine, Russia or Belarus. Its highly effective radar systems will scan for any possible missile launches from hundreds of kilometres inside Russia, Belarus and Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine.
Chipman says the Wedgetail, built into a Boeing 737 airframe, was an Australian idea, built to Australian specifications to meet an Australian requirement. Boeing and Northrop Grumman in the US fitted the radar and the UK’s BAE Systems the electronic-warfare system.
He says the project was for a long time very troubled and benefited from the additional oversight as a project of concern. ‘An element of pragmatism crept in once we realised that some of the capability requirements, we set were aspirational, that this was leading-edge technology. We needed to work with the manufacturer and evolve it iteratively.
‘We were able to bring it into service at a time when the operators could still influence the capability. That’s been the secret sauce—you have people who know the system well, to operate it to its top potential and work closely with the manufacturers to deliver that.’
The Wedgetail was highly developmental and the phased-array radar, the heart of the surveillance capability, had never been integrated into an airborne system at that scale.
The Australian National Audit Office warned that delays in some projects, including the Wedgetail, resulted from their technical difficulty leading to ‘underestimation by industry and/or Defence of the complexity of developmental and/or large scale integration projects’.
The ANAO said the Wedgetail achieved final operational capability in May 2015, but noted that it had ‘provided more than 1,220 hours directing air strikes in the coalition operations in the Middle East since October 2014’.
Chris Deeble, who now heads Defence’s Capability Acquisition and Sustainment Group, joined the project in 2006.
He says the aircraft was conceived as a mobile element of the command-and-control role that had previously been done from the ground. What finally emerged was vastly more than that. ‘It’s a critical aggregator and disseminator of information, taking information in, adding its own sensor and other information and pushing that out to the fighter force. It’s an enabler now for fifth-generation warfighting.’
Deeble says such complex projects are necessary and the Wedgetail experience demonstrates that they can succeed. ‘It’s about being aware, understanding the risks and the benefits, and charting the path that helps avoid significant problems you will inevitably find as you take on complex technology.
‘People didn’t understand what being the lead customer for our first-of-type capability was going to mean for us. The specification was very demanding, as I discovered when I took over the program.’ A very aggressive schedule was never going to be achieved.
An example was the early approach to testing the radar. ‘When we got the radar operating on the aircraft, the temptation was to check its performance at full power, its range, its loading and its maximum performance. That was very important to understanding if we’ll get there.’ But when they went to full power on the immature radar, it failed, he says. ‘It was not stable, so we had to accept that path was not going to work and reverted to a lower power.’
Ultimately, the integrated radar and communications systems fitted within two side arrays and a ‘top hat’ (also known as a ‘surfboard’) on the fuselage could ‘see’ over a vast area.
Deeble says that, from his experience running many projects of concern, a lack of understanding of the risks involved is a common factor. That means dealing with unexpected problems as the project progresses.
‘And people would say that if we told government that it was going to take 10 years versus six years, then government would never approve it. I think that’s not true, and I think sometimes we underestimate governments’ and politicians’ ability to understand it.’
It took much longer than expected to get the Wedgetail project right, and that meant a constant fear that the key stakeholders wouldn’t bear the cost and the project would be cancelled.
‘You have to understand where you may be pushing the bounds of technology,’ Deeble says.
So, what does the Wedgetail’s ultimate success signal about Australia’s ability to develop cutting-edge technology and get it operational?
‘It tells us that it’s not cheap,’ says Chipman. ‘It’s not easy; it doesn’t happen quickly. You need to persist with it, but you also need to get to a point where you’ve got a good enough product to push it out into the operational community and evolve it over time.
‘That combination of working in partnership, having the vision, persistence and determination to see a capability through, but also to evolve it while it’s in service are valuable lessons. That’s our pathway. There are other ways to deliver cutting-edge technology to the warfighter, and we need to be open to all of them.’
Chipman says some original goals may have been over optimistic, but setting them helped develop a significant capability. ‘Had we not set ambitious targets, we would have fallen short of what was eventually achieved. You have to strive for ambitious targets.’
But there is a balance point. ‘We also need to achieve the timely delivery of capability into service. We were close to a point with the Wedgetail where our determination to achieve an ambitious target was delaying its introduction, and that’s dead time for us. If a product is good enough, then we bring it into service and achieve those aspirational objectives over time.’
How difficult is it to evolve a capability once it’s operational?
That’s the new model, says Chipman.
The RAAF has a steady drumbeat refreshing the capabilities of platforms such as the F-35A Lightning II, the Growler electronic attack aircraft and the Super Hornet by upgrading software, hardware and firmware.
‘That ensures that we’re on the leading edge of technology. We must do that because our potential adversaries are not standing still. They’re delivering new missiles and other capabilities into inventory, new electronic-warfare systems. You’ve got this cat-and-mouse game where we need to continue to make sure our systems can compete and win.’
Brendan Nicholson is executive editor of The Strategist.
This was published by ASPI on 7 November 2023 and then republished by them on 28 December 2023.
Featured Photo: Air Marshal Chipman presenting at the Williams Foundation seminar March 30, 2023. Credit: Second Line of Defense.