Controlling the tactical battlespace
One of the most affordable ways of monitoring the posture of an unfriendly country is the airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft. Sitting in international waters or in your own air space, operators in the rear of the aircraft can point the sensors in the appropriate direction, then sit back and act upon the feedback.
There are many advantages of having this capability in the air. Monitoring your foe’s territory to detect and track aircraft, ships or vehicles is an important mission. Performing command and control in the battle space, when personnel on board can direct fighters or attack aircraft onto targets is another. Or alternatively they can carry out surveillance over ground or sea targets, distinguishing between the allied and enemy forces to reduce the chances of blue-on-blue incidents.
In a nutshell, AEW platforms can gather information from a wide variety of sources, analyse it and distribute it to other air and surface assets. They can control the tactical battle space, providing direction for fighter aircraft, surface combatants and land based elements, as well as supporting aircraft such as tankers and intelligence platforms.
These aircraft provide the military with a number of tactical advantages. One, which is often overlooked, is the capability to look down into valleys or to overcome blind spots if mountain peaks block out long-range Ground Based Air Defence radar waves.
E-3 AWACS Popularity
Despite the first aircraft being delivered to the US Air Force (USAF) 45 years ago, the most popular AEW aircraft is the E-3 Airborne Warning and control System (AWACS). Today, the five customers operating the 60 active aircraft include the USAF (31 being reduced to 24), NATO (15), French Air Force (4), RAF (5) and the Royal Saudi Air Force (5).
The E-3 has a range of nearly 5,000mi and an air-to-air refuelling capability that can extend its range. Most of the E-3s have gone through regular upgrades to overcome obsolescence and keep up to date with new emerging threats. Under a U$2.7 billion upgrade the USAF is upgrading 24 of its 31 E-3s with a new more sophisticated Red Hat Linux-based system to replace the antiquated 1970s/80s systems currently on board. Development of the E-3G Block 40/45 upgrade commenced as far back as 2003, and among other things will fuse air, land and sea tracks into one single integrated sensor display in line with most modern AEW systems.
An E-3G was deployed into combat for the first time in November 2015, with its destination believed to be Al Udeid, Qatar, where it was used to coordinate the multinational air campaign against Daesh and keeping track of Russian aircraft operating over Russia without using their Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) transponders.
NATO is also upgrading 14 of its E-3s with new flight decks and avionics suites that will replace its 1970s era analogue systems. Boeing announced it had been awarded a $257 million upgrade contract in 2014 to integrate five full-colour digital glass displays with customisable radar, navigation and engine data. The work started in August 2016 and is due to be completed this year.
In May 2017, Boeing announced it had completed the Radar System Improvement Programme (RSIP) on the Royal Saudi E-3 AWACS fleet, which began as a joint US/NATO development programme. The kit built by Northrop Grumman includes a new radar computer, a radar control maintenance panel, and electrical and mechanical software and hardware.
According to a Boeing press release, Keith Burns, Saudi AWACS Programs Manager for Boeing said: “The modernised software, multiple radar nodes and overall enhanced operation make this the most significant upgrade to the AWACS radar since it was developed in the 1970s.”
While most of the operational E-3 fleets have all been regularly upgraded, the RAF examples have been left to soldier on without any significant improvements in recent years. This would have been resolved under the UK’s Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) in 2015, which announced the RAF’s AWACS currently served by the E-3D Sentry AEW1 would undergo a large upgrade by 2025. However, in a recent interview with the MONCh, Air Cdre Dean Andrew, the RAF ISTAR Force Commander, would only comment: “Whether it is an E-3 upgrade or a new system or something else on the market depends upon the value for money.”
It seems it would be simpler to buy a new more advanced off-the-shelf AEW aircraft with more sophisticated systems on board than upgrade the existing E-3Ds.
Boeing’s Newer Option
The official RAF line is that the AWACS Capability Sustainment Programme will be taken after full consideration of current and emergent threats and in the best interests of National Security. At the recent Royal International Air Tattoo at RAF Fairford, in the UK during mid-July, one of the main talking points was an RAF AWACS replacement. The Boeing E-7, an AEW version of the Boeing 737-700 is a firm favourite and the sight of a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) example at RIAT to celebrate the RAF’s 100th Anniversary only fuelled rumours a RAF E-7 deal was almost done. With the RAF already committed to another Boeing 737 airframe, in the shape of the Boeing P-8 POSEIDON, there would be definite advantages of flying the same type of aircraft.
However, in a letter dated 26 June, Dr Julian Lewis, Chairman of the Defence Committee, wrote to Guto Bebb, the Minister of Defence for Procurement over concerns the Boeing E-7A would be selected as a future AEW aircraft: “Any requirement should be put out to competitive tender rather than bought ‘off the shelf’ with no competition taking place.”
Mr Lewis also disclosed that other manufacturers had briefed the Defence Committee on their solutions to provide a capability, with one of them being a highly credible alternative to Boeing’s option. Three air forces are today flying the E-7: Australia (6, first delivered May 5, 2010), South Korea (4, first delivered on August 1, 2011) and Turkey (4, first delivered January 2014).
The E-7 is fitted with a Top Hat modification on top of the fuselage, which holds the advanced Multi-Role Electronically Scanned Array (MESA) radar. On board there are ten mission crew consoles and the aircraft according to the RAAF, can fly four million square kilometres during a single 10-hour mission. It can cover both maritime and airborne targets simultaneously, which the E-3G systems are thought to be able to do now.
As one Boeing engineer once put it: “The main difference between the WEDGETAIL and the AWACS is you are not limited or defined by a 360 degrees rotator. You can configure how much power you want to put into your radar reach; it is configurable to the mission. The integrated IFF and radar functionality also allows the system to reach much farther than other systems into the battlespace to shape greater situational awareness in the battlespace. You can put the energy in the mission area where you have the highest priority.”
Japan, the only country to have purchased it as an AEW&C, operates four Boeing E-767 and despite initial problems they have now settled in. They are being augmented by four E-2D Hawkeyes, at a cost of $1.7 billion, which will include associated equipment, spares and logistical support. A $151.3 million order for the first aircraft, was contracted on 12 November 2015. Taiwan (Republic of China) already operates six E-2K HAWKEYEs.
Saab’s GlobalEye AEW is emerging as a new threat to Boeing’s dominance. The Swedish jet beat off competition from the Boeing E-7A and Northrop Grumman E-2D for the UAE’s long drawn out AEW contract. A deal worth $1.27 billion, covering two GlobalEyes was announced in November 2015, increased to a third aircraft under a second contract valued at $235 million in February 2017. The first was rolled out in February this year and made its first flight the following month.
Matts Wicksell, Saab GlobalEye Programme Manager, told MONCh: “We can see extremely small subjects, like rib boats, and jet-skis and in the air we can see stealthy targets at a longer distance.”
This has been made possible because mounted on top of the airframe is the S-band active electronically scanned array (AESA) ERIEYE ER (Extended Range) multi-mode radar. Saab claims it has a detection range which has been improved by over 70%, compared with the previous generation model, to more than 300mi (450 kilometres).
Two other sensors working with the ERIEYE ER are the Leonardo SEASPRAY 7500 maritime radar and FLIR’s Star SAFIRE 380HD Electro Optical/Infra-Red (EO/IR) turret. For their mission the jet must descend to around 5,000 feet. The maritime radar can track up to 300 targets, while the Star SAFIRE 380HD allows the operators in the rear cabin to focus on anything of interest.
Saab has the biggest network of AEW operators – there are eight flying three different systems: Sweden (two Saab 340s), Brazil (three EMB 145/R-99s) Greece (four EMB-145H), Mexico (one EMB 145SA), Pakistan (3 SAAB 2000s plus three on order), Saudi Arabia known as Country X due to contract restrictions (2 x SAAB 2000), and the UAE (two SAAB 340 with three Bombardier 6000 GlobalEyes on order).
Pakistan’s Chinese Options
The Pakistan Air Force, which operates the ERIEYE system mounted on the Saab 2000, augments them with four ZDK-03 Korakoram Eagles delivered between 2010 and 2012. The aircraft are Shaanxi Y-9G airframes with a dome on top. China Electronics Technology Corporation (CETC) has upgraded the four Shaanxi Y-9G airframes, fitting the AESA radar in the dome.
At Zhuhai Air Show in 2016, the company displayed two different Y-9 AEW&C aircraft. They included a KJ-500/ZDK-06 with a dome on top in the static display, while at its stand stood two models of the same K/JE-03, with the balanced beam radar, but presented in different colour schemes. A video also showed the capability improvements in the newer ZDK-06, which provided a more flexible means of attack and defence. Working with fighters, UAVs, navy ships and command centres, it can data-link the information it is detecting over long ranges and vice-versa and can downlink the aerial picture as well as uplink data from ground-based air defences. The ZDK-06 is said to offer mid-course guidance, updating a missile’s trajectory en route to a mobile target too.
The Israel Air Space Force operates four heavily modified Gulfstream 550s for the AEW mission. The EITAM, as the jet is called, is fitted with the EL/W-2085 multi-sensor suite which provides a full 360° coverage, with its narrower field S-band antennas on the fore and aft of the aircraft, as well as wider-scoping L-band antennas mounted on the sides of the G550 CAEW fuselage. It has a ten-hour endurance and a 7,000km (5,500mi) range.
The most recent customer for the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) Gulfstream 550 is the Italian Air Force, which took delivery of two jets in 2016/17 in a $750 million deal made in 2012.
IAI was also involved in the Indian Air Force acquisition of three AEW&C configured Ilyushin Il-76s known as the A-50eHI – another two were ordered in March 2016. Under a $1.1 billion deal, all three initial Il-76 airframes were modified, by IAI Elta at Tel Aviv-Ben Gurion Airport, with the IAI EL/W-2090 AEW&C PHALCON radar system. It is regarded as one of the most advanced systems in the world, with an AESA at the heart of its system. Data gathered by the system’s other three sensors – phased array IFF, ESM/ELINT and CSM/COMINT – are continuously cross-referenced so when detection is indicated they automatically initiate an active search across them. The radar is able to track multiple fast moving targets at a range of up to 250mi (400km), and a communication suite guarantees the secure voice/data links to air, ground and sea.
The Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) bought four Conformal Airborne Early Warning (CAEW) configured Gulfstream 550s for $1 billion from IAI Elta in May 2007. The CAEW with its EL/W-2085 sensor suite has revolutionised the way the RSAF carries out its AEW role after 23 years of the E-2C HAWKEYE.