The U.S. Navy has received its first E-2D aircraft. This is the latest version of the E-2 Hawkeye radar aircraft. Originally introduced in 1964, the two engine, 24 ton E-2 was never produced in large quantities (fewer than a hundred are in use). Three years ago, the E-2 fleet reached a milestone, of a million flight hours.
The current E-2C models cost about $51 million each and are difficult to maintain because of their age. The E-2s always contained a large quantity of the most modern, and failure prone, electronics. Operating mostly off carriers, and thus constantly exposed to corrosive, salty ocean air, the aircraft takes a beating. The five man crew are mostly concerned with using the large radar carried atop the aircraft, and keeping track of friendly, and hostile, aircraft and missiles at up to 400 kilometers distance.
The aircraft can stay in the air for 4-6 hours at a time, and cruises at 450 kilometers an hour. The E-2s have had their electronics constantly upgraded over the years. Currently, the three "system operators" use large flat screen displays and many gigabytes of disk storage each (for capturing and comparing data) to operate as a sea-going AWACS. It was the navy that developed the AWACS concept at the end of World War II, using Avenger light bombers, equipped with radar, to control large carrier strikes.
Each American aircraft carrier has four E-2s, and the U.S. Navy has a total fleet of about 70 E-2s. There are several dozen in service in other countries, but only France operates them from carriers. Everyone else uses land bases. About half the E-2s ever built are still flying, and the United States expects to keep using them (as the E-2D) into the 2020s. After that, an unmanned aircraft will probably replace the E-2.
The E-2D has new engines, a new phased array radar, new electronics and many other improvements. Development and manufacturing of 75 E-2Ds for the U.S. Navy will cost about $206 million per aircraft. The E-2D will have longer range, and more accurate, radar as well as much more efficient and reliable computer systems. Many of the current E-2Cs will get some of the electronics improvements, depending on how much money is available. The first carrier to be equipped with E-2Ds won't happen for another 3-4 years. In the meantime, individual E-2Ds will operate from carriers to work out any remaining bugs and unforeseen problems.