Australia is spending $443 million to upgrade its six E-7A Wedgetail AWACS (aerial early warning and control) aircraft with some new sensors and improved communications (data links with other aircraft and ground stations as well as improved encryption). These upgrades will be completed by 2022. The need for the upgrades became clear after several thousand hours of Wedgetail combat experience supporting operations against ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) in Iraq and Syria since 2014. This was the first combat experience for Wedgetail and began before Wedgetail was declared completely operational in May 2015.
Australia spent nearly two decades developing and tweaking Wedgetail aircraft and it is normal for aircraft of this type to be regularly upgraded, especially if they spend a lot of time in combat. Work on Wedgetail began in 1997 and the first ones were to be delivered in 2006. But that did not happen until 2009, when the first two arrived. By 2014 all six were available. Limited capability was achieved in 2012 but several of the electronic systems were still having some problems, causing more delays. So far the Wedgetail program has cost Australia over $3 billion and the suppliers have absorbed nearly a billion dollars in additional costs to fix most of the technical problems with the aircraft and electronics. There have been a lot of technical problems, many of them unexpected. It costs some $28 million a year to maintain each Wedgetail, even if it is not flying.
Australia was the first customer for Wedgetail and that’s why the Australian program has had so many problems. South Korea and Turkey have since bought another eight Wedgetails and now other nations are interested as well. One thing that is unique with Wedgetail is that it is based on a militarized Boeing 737 transport. The cruise speed for the 737 is 910 kilometers an hour and the Wedgetail version has a crew of 8-12 pilots and equipment operators, who use the search radar and various other sensors. The 78 ton Wedgetail can stay in the air for more than ten hours per sortie. Wedgetail can refuel in the air and Australian Wedgetails often flew longer missions (14 hours or so) in the Middle East. The limit here was mainly crew fatigue.
When fully operational the Wedgetail radar can spot fighter size aircraft 370 kilometers away and frigate size ships up to 240 kilometers away. This dual sea and air search radar capability is essential because Australia is surrounded by water and has no land borders with anyone. The radar can also detect other electronic transmissions up to 850 kilometers away and has software and databases that can identify a large number of different transmissions. Acting as a pure AWACS Wedgetail can track up to 180 aircraft and guide friendly warplanes to 24 intercepts at a time.
The Wedgetail design was the second use of the militarized 737. Australia is replacing its older P-3 maritime reconnaissance aircraft with the new, 737 based, P-8.