After nearly two decades of effort Australia has still not got its Wedgetail AWACS (aerial early warning and control) aircraft completely operational. 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. Now all six are available but none are expected to be “fully operational” until 2015. 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.
Australia was the first customer for Wedgetail and that’s why the Australian program has had so many problems. Australia is using militarized Boeing 737 transports, modified by Boeing, as the basis for the Wedgetail. 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. It costs some $28 million a year to maintain each Wedgetail, even if it is not flying.
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.
In 2009 the trainer version of a Wedgetail was used to develop and test the use of Wedgetail to control three ScanEagle UAVs. This enables the Wedgetail to expand its recon capabilities, using its own AESA radar and the video on the UAVs to quickly identify land or sea traffic. This capability allows any UAV with suitable communications equipment can be controlled by the Wedgetail. This technique has also been tested with fighter-bombers controlling UAVs.
The Wedgetail design is by no means a failure and despite the problems with the Australian aircraft Turkey and South Korea have also ordered and received some. Japan and Italy are evaluating Wedgetail.