UK’s E-7 Radar Jet Deal Slammed As “Absolute Folly” In New Report

Slashing U.K. E-7 Wedgetail procurement from five to three jets saves little money and makes the fleet more of a “prized target.”

byThomas Newdick|
RAF E-7 Wedgetail
Crown Copyright


The United Kingdom’s deal to buy three, rather than the previously planned five Boeing E-7A Wedgetail airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft for the Royal Air Force “represents extremely poor value for money” and “an absolute folly.” Those are among the conclusions of a report published today by the U.K. Defense Committee, a body that examines Ministry of Defense (MoD) expenditure, administration, and policy on behalf of the British parliament.

A computer-generated rendering of an E-7A Wedgetail in RAF service. Crown Copyright

At the center of the report’s criticism of the procurement is the fact that, as a result of a contract stipulation, the MoD is having to pay for all five Northrop Grumman Multi-role Electronically Scanned Array (MESA) radars, even though only three aircraft — which will be designated Wedgetail AEW1 in RAF service — are being acquired. The report assesses that the total cost of the three-aircraft order will be $2.5 billion, compared to the $2.7 billion agreed for five of the radar planes.

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“Even basic arithmetic would suggest that ordering three E-7s rather than five (at some 90 [percent] of the original acquisition cost) represents extremely poor value for money,” the report contends.

The E-7 procurement is one of three major defense deals dealt with by the report, which comes at the end of a six-month inquiry. The Type 26 anti-submarine warfare frigate for the Royal Navy and the Ajax armored fighting vehicle for the British Army also come in for criticism. Worryingly, the overall conclusion is that the U.K.’s defense procurement system is “broken” and that “multiple, successive reviews have not yet fixed it.”

Returning to the E-7 specifically, the Defense Committee points out that a three-aircraft fleet will also make them even more vulnerable to potential adversaries during conflicts. The report suggests that the tiny fleet will be a “prize target” for aggressors. Not only will the AEW&C aircraft play a critical role in any high-end air campaign, but also planes of this type are increasingly under threat from long-range air defenses and are far from survivable in any kind of contested airspace.

The same report also warns that the initial operating capability for the RAF E-7s could be delayed by a further year to 2025. This is especially concerning considering that the RAF retired its previous E-3D Sentry AEW1 radar planes in 2021, leaving a massive capability gap. Three of the E-3Ds were sold to Chile, which will use them in the AEW&C role, with one more going to the U.S. Navy for conversion as a training aircraft for the crews of its E-6B Mercury jets, the so-called ‘doomsday planes.’

A Royal Air Force E-3D Sentry AEW1 during its final months of operations. Crown Copyright

Other problems are dogging the U.K.’s plans to field the E-7, the report explains, including the failure of Boeing and the British procurement arm, Defense Equipment and Support (DE&S), to agree on an in-service support contract. The report says that such a contract “should already have been successfully finalized long ago.”

An RAF spokesperson told Breaking Defense that a full business case (FBC) for the E-7, including an agreement covering in-service support, is expected to be ready by the third quarter of this year, having slipped from mid-2023 as previously planned.

Other issues with the deal that are referenced in the report have already been made public.

For example, the manufacturing process for the jets has been impacted by COVID-19 as well as workforce problems at Boeing.

Conversion work on RAF E-7s taking place in the United Kingdom in late 2022. Crown Copyright

Meanwhile, in December last year, Boeing disclosed that an increase in the lead time for E-7 parts coming from external suppliers means that the first RAF E-7 will not be delivered to its operating location at RAF Lossiemouth, Scotland, until 2024.

There may well be more bad news to come for the program.

The U.K. Defense Committee is currently preparing a report on aviation procurement that “will likely examine the operational impact and alleged life-cycle savings” that come from buying three rather than five E-7s.

As it now stands, the three radar planes are undergoing conversion with STS Aviation Services in Birmingham, England. Here, the jets are transformed from commercial 737 airframes into fully equipped E-7s, with the MESA radar at the center of their mission suite.

Noteworthy is the fact that the first of the RAF E-7s will be a converted 737-700 Boeing Business Jet last operated by a Chinese airline. The choice of this 10-year-old, formerly Chinese-operated airframe has led to come concern, including from former high-ranking RAF officers.

On the other hand, it had long been planned to use second-hand civilian airframes as the basis for the first two RAF E-7s. The Chinese story is something that we previously reported on in detail in the past.

What will become the first RAF Wedgetail AEW1 is seen as a Boeing 737-700 during its career with Deer Jet in China. N509FZ/Wikimedia Commons

Last week, Dan Gillian, Vice President of Mobility, Surveillance and Bombers at Boeing, confirmed that one of the RAF E-7s already has its MESA radar installed and that “the other two are following behind.”

With only a three-aircraft E-7 fleet planned, for the time being, at least, it’s clear that these planes will be in very high demand.

The United Kingdom is already working on ways of optimizing its fleet and smoothing its introduction to service by working more closely with other E-7 customers, namely Australia and the United States.

During the Royal International Air Tattoo last week, a “Joint Vision Statement” was signed by officials from all three countries. The U.K. MoD describes this as a commitment “to work together for mutual benefit through cooperation relating to Wedgetail capability development, evaluation and testing, interoperability, sustainment, operations, training, and safety.”

While the Royal Australian Air Force has operated the E-7 since 2010 and has used its six aircraft in combat operations, the U.S. Air Force became a customer only more recently, with a plan to buy an initial 26 examples by 2032. You can read more about the decision to buy the E-7 here, as well as the capabilities that it will bring to the U.S. military here.

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There is no doubt that the E-7 is a highly capable aircraft and a vital force-multiplier for a range of different missions, wartime and otherwise. With only very few other Western AEW&C options available, it’s also critical that these aircraft can be delivered to customers on time and then supported as necessary. In the context of the U.K. E-7 program, these fundamentals are currently not being achieved. Moreover, the decision to cut the order from five aircraft to three is increasingly looking like a bad call, not only in terms of saving money but also ensuring that the fleet is resilient enough to provide the capabilities demanded of it.

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