Australia’s Troubled E-737 “Wedgetail” AWACS Program

The island continent of Australia faces a number of unique security challenges that stem from its geography. Separated from its neighbors by large expanses of ocean, the nation nonetheless resides within a potential arc of instability and has a number of important resource sites to protect. Awareness of what is going on around it, and the ability to push that awareness well offshore, are critical requirements.

In 1997, therefore, Australia’s AIR 5077 Project aimed to field a next generation aircraft that could monitor the airspace and even the waters around Australia. Rather than picking the larger E-767 as the Japanese had done, they wanted a smaller and presumably less expensive aircraft. The “Project Wedgetail” winner from among the 3 finalists was a new variant of Boeing’s 737-700, fitted with an MESA radar from Northrop Grumman. That radar exchanges the traditional AWACS rotating dome for the E-737’s stable antenna and its “top hat” look.

The ride has not been a smooth one for all concerned. The real turbulence began in 2006, when a project that was held up as a model of acquisition reform, and reported as on time and on budget, suddenly found itself way behind schedule and over cost. The first 2 E-737 aircraft were supposed to be delivered in November 2006, and enter service in 2007. They will now be at least 4 years late for their in-service date. Boeing is also unhappy, as the A$ 3.45 billion contracts were structured in a way that shifted risk to them. That has forced the firm to take hundreds of million of dollars in write-offs.

DID’s FOCUS articles offer in-depth, updated looks at significant military programs of record. Project Wedgetail qualifies, and this article will soon become DII subscription content. In recent developments, Boeing’s write-off total may grow in the wake of reports that ongoing problems are causing more schedule delays. According to some reports, they may even imperil the aircraft program, which has been ordered by Australia, Turkey, and South Korea…

Contracts & Key Events
Nov 20/08: Announcements are made that the Wedgetail Project will have its delivery date pushed back yet again, with the first aircraft not expected until late 2009, initial operating capability waiting until 2011, and full operating capability waiting until 2012. Even those dates are not firm, however, as they depend on Boeing’s ability to solve major technical issues.

The Australian quotes Australia’s Defence Procurement Secretary Greg Combet, who said the project was on the government’s “Projects of Concern” watchlist but that there were no plans to cancel it:

“Just last week there was a summit held in Canberra where we discussed how we are going to move things forward. I am pleased to say progress was made in those discussions but there is much more work to be done yet. This probably the project that keeps me awake the most at night.”

Meanwhile, Australia’s Courier News reports that:
“Senior military officers have admitted the prime contractor, US giant Boeing, and its sub-contractors have no idea how to fix the main problem – an unworkable radar system… Air Vice-Marshal Deeble qualified his [2011-2012] timetable by saying it depended on solving the technical issues with the MESA radar built by US firm Northrop Grumman…. In a desperate bid for answers, the Defence Materiel Organisation has contracted the world-leading independent radar house MIT Lincoln Lab to investigate. “That will be important for us to understand the baseline performance and any path forward for remediation of any shortfall of the radar,” Air Vice-Marshal Deeble told the Senate.”

Sources. The Age: Nov 20 report The Australian: Nov 21 report Nov 24 report Courier-Mail.

Jan 22/08: The first Wedgetail aircraft modified by Boeing Australia Ltd (aircraft #3 in the program) takes off on a successful functional check flight to very the airworthiness of the aircraft’s systems and structures. Boeing Australia release Boeing release with photo.

June 6/07: Boeing begins flight testing under Project Wedgetail. During an initial 4-hour flight from Boeing Field in Seattle, WA, the crew conducted a series of functional tests as part of a program to measure the mission system’s impact on the aircraft’s power generation capability and environmental controls, such as the liquid and air cooling systems. Boeing release Gizmag.

March 20/07: Boeing announces that communications, navigation, mission computing, radar and electronic warfare self protection subsystems has been completed aboard a 737 airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft for Australia’s Project Wedgetail. Functional checkout of the AEW&C system with the aircraft is scheduled for the end of April 2007, and FAA certification and qualification testing are scheduled for summer 2007. Boeing’s release promises delivery of the first 2 Wedgetail aircraft in March 2009, and the remaining 4 aircraft by mid-2009.

Boeing conducted tests aboard the aircraft and at its System Integration Lab in Kent, Wash., using a variety of simulations. “The tests demonstrated that the systems worked separately and together, and that they were compatible with the aircraft,” said Ross Dessert, Boeing Wedgetail program manager at the time.

Feb 2/07: The Australian reports that the Wedgetail early-warning aircraft project has been delayed again, pushing back the expected acceptance date to 2009 and contributing to another $US 274 million fourth quarter write-off by Boeing. Initial operation capability is now expected in 2010. The report adds that:

“Most importantly, it has had problems getting the revolutionary phased array radar—a Northrop Grumman system forming the centrepiece of the new planes—to work properly. The problems have already resulted in a $US496 million write-off in Boeing’s second-quarter results last year and prompted a comprehensive review of the program…. But it says it has worked with suppliers to move significant resources to the program and is now confident it can meet its revised timetable as well as the RAAF’s operational requirements.”
June 29/06: Australia’s Minister for Defence Dr. Brendan Nelson, announces that the Wedgetail project has fallen behind schedule:

“During our talks, Boeing CEO Jim Albaugh confirmed the Wedgetail project has slipped behind schedule. Until recently, Boeing was advising that this project had been running well and achieving significant success for one of such complexity…. The extent of the delay will be determined by intense project reviews over the next two months…. The contract between the ADF and Boeing does include a provision for liquidated damages. The government is reserving its contractual rights in this regard.”

June 29/06: Boeing tells its investors that it will recognize charges related to delays on the Project Wedgetail and the similar Turkish “Peace Eagle” project, when it announces second-quarter 2006 results July 26.

“Boeing expects to record a charge of between $300 million and $500 million pre-tax due to delays related to its Airborne Early Warning & Control (AEW&C) program for Australia and Turkey…. Delivery of the first two Wedgetail aircraft and that effort’s flight test schedule have been delayed up to 18 months because of development and integration issues with certain hardware and software components. Boeing now plans to deliver all six Wedgetail aircraft by the end of 2008 and is developing the Peace Eagle schedule with its Turkish customer.”

March 09/06: Boeing and Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems have completed ground testing of the Multi-role Electronically Scanned Array (MESA) radar aboard a 737 airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft for Australia’s Project Wedgetail, clearing it for flight testing at full power. Boeing also integrated the radar and Identification Friend or Foe system, allowing for simultaneous operation and more efficient targeting and data collection. Jack Delange, 737 AEW&C integration and test manager:

“The testing demonstrated the radar would not interfere with the aircraft’s avionics and engines and is compatible with the mission system hardware and software.”

Boeing’s release adds that: “Australia has purchased six 737 AEW&C aircraft. The first two will be delivered for initial operational capability in July 2007. The remaining aircraft are scheduled to be delivered by 2008.”

Jan 16/06: Australia’s DoD announces that a Wedgetail aircraft has successfully conducted a ‘world first’ 360 degree scanning with an airborne phased array radar.

Defence Minister Robert Hill says the airborne test of the radar, carried out by the combined Boeing and Defence Materiel Organisation AEW&C project team based in the USA, lasted more than 3 hours and operated trouble-free.

Jan 16/06: First delivery of a 737-700 aircraft to Boeing Australia for modifications, as it arrives at RAAF Amberley. Australian DoD Space Mart.

Sept 01/05: Boeing announces the first in-flight test of the Northrop Grumman MESA radar aboard a 737 airborne early warning and control aircraft for Australia’s Project Wedgetail. The 6-hour flight test over Washington state followed 3 weeks of ground testing of the radar in Victorville, CA. The ground testing verified the compatibility of the radar with other aircraft systems while operating and scanning through 360 degrees.

The firm is still promising delivery of the first 2 aircraft in 2006. Jack DeLange, 737 AEW&C integration and test manager:

“The mission was flawless…. All of the first radar flight test objectives were achieved.”

July 05/05: Boeing announces successful completion of the air performance and flight handling test program for Australia’s first Wedgetail 737 aircraft.

March 17/05: Boeing and BAE Systems Australia Limited, today signed a world teaming agreement to capture similar business with their 737 AEW&C platform. Boeing release.

March 15/05: A Boeing 737 Wedgetail aircraft lands in Canberra, Australia, as part of Boeing’s participation in the Australian International Airshow at Avalon in Victoria. In the DoD release, Senator Hill says

“In the four years since project signature, it is still on schedule and on budget.”

Nov 23/04: Boeing announces installation of the MESA radar assembly on a 2nd 737-700 for Australia’s Project Wedgetail. The Northrop Grumman-built MESA antenna is 35.5 feet long and weighs more than 3 tons.
June 3/04: Australia formally commits to the purchase of 2 additional Wedgetail Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft in a special signing ceremony at the Royal Australian Air Force Base Amberley. DoD release:

“The $3.4 billion AEW&C project, which is on budget and ahead of schedule, will equip the RAAF with a fleet of six Wedgetail aircraft and provide a state-of-the-art air and maritime surveillance capability. Four of the six aircraft will be modified in Australia. The first of these is scheduled to arrive at RAAF Amberley late next year, with the final Wedgetail due for completion in early 2008.

Australian industry involvement in Project Wedgetail is already worth more than $A 400 million. Completion of the four aircraft in Australia will increase that Australian industry involvement by $80 million. Strategic industry development activity worth an additional $99 million has also been included with the purchase of the extra two aircraft. “The Wedgetail project will create around 170 new jobs in South East Queensland – most based at Amberley,” Senator Hill said.”

May 21/04: Australia’s DoD announces the first flight of the Royal Australian Air Force’s new “Wedgetail” Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft, at Boeing Field in Seattle in the United States.

May 12/04: Boeing announces that Australia has exercised options to purchase 2 of its 3 optional Project Wedgetail aircraft, raising its total order to 6 fully-equipped planes. The options are valued at approximately $180 million, as the original contract had included 6 AEW&C systems. Boeing’s release adds that:

“Delivery of the first two 737 AEW&C aircraft to the Royal Australian Air Force is scheduled for 2006. The other four aircraft will be delivered by 2008.”

March 5/04: Australia’s DoD:

“Defence Minister Robert Hill today opened the new headquarters for Australia’s $3.27 billion Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) Wedgetail aircraft. The headquarters at Williamtown near Newcastle is also the official new home of Air Force’s re-formed No 2 Squadron, who will fly the AEW&C Wedgetail when it becomes operational.”

The current DoD schedule has the first Wedgetail flight in Seattle in May 2004, and the first 2 aircraft being officially handed over to the RAAF in November 2006. Sen. Hill:

“The headquarters is the first tangible delivery for the project, which has been leading the way for reform in Defence Materiel Organisation projects…. In the three years since project signature, it is still ahead of schedule and on budget.

The opening of the headquarters today also marks the beginning of long-term relationship with the Hunter region. It is the first stage of a $149 million redevelopment of the RAAF base, which includes hangars and parking areas for the AEW&C Wedgetail and improvements to the runways and taxiways. The construction program has created about 255 jobs on the base and more indirect jobs related to the prefabrication, supply and distribution of material for the project in the region.”

Nov 03/03: Australian DoD and Boeing announcements re: successful installation and testing of the power distribution system on the first 737-AEW&C platform, ahead of schedule. The first airworthiness flight of the aircraft is scheduled for spring 2004. Defence Minister Robert Hill:

“Australia’s new AEW&C aircraft remain under budget and on track to entering into service in 2007, providing us with a key air and maritime surveillance capability.”

May 19/03: The Australian DoD announces a successful critical design review (CDR) for BAE Systems Australia’s Electronic Warfare Self Protection and Electronic Support Measures Subsystems.

Nov 8/02: “Defence Minister Robert Hill today welcomed the completion of the first Radar and Identification Friend or Foe antenna for Australia’s new Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft.” DoD release.

Oct 31/02: Boeing photo release:

“The first Australian Wedgetail aircraft was rolled out Oct. 31 during a ceremony at the Boeing plant in Renton, Wash. The 737-700 will be transformed into a platform for an Airborne Early Warning & Control System, or AEW&C. Modifications to the aircraft begin in 2003. Project Wedgetail is named after Australia’s native eagle.”

See also the Australian DoD Nov 1/02 release, which adds that:

“Defence Minister Robert Hill today saw the first airframe for Australia’s new [A$] 3.45 billion airborne early warning and control aircraft fleet – fresh off the production line at Boeing’s Military Flight Centre in Seattle, United States…. With the first air frame ready for modification we expect our first Wedgetail aircraft to fly before the end of the year – around six months ahead of schedule – with the first two aircraft of the fleet expected to be in service in 2007,” Senator Hill said.”

July 12/02: Boeing announces a successful preliminary design review for Project Wedgetail’s airborne mission system. The review was conducted on schedule—one year after the start of the System Acquisition contract. It includes a general review of the airborne mission system design against the requirements established by the Commonwealth of Australia. It shows how the radar, communications, mission computing , electronic warfare self protection, navigation, and aircraft subsystems integrate together.

Group Capt. Lindsay Ward, leader of the Australian Defence Resident Project team:

“The airborne mission segment is the most complex and highly integrated single element in the overall AEW&C System we are buying from Boeing. The review therefore represented the culmination of a huge amount of work…. Under our partnering approach with the contractor team headed by Boeing, the program has a solid track record of facing up to and resolving issues so that we can keep forging ahead while still meeting required capability outcomes. This review was no exception.”

Boeing’s release adds that it expects to deliver the first two aircraft to the Commonwealth of Australia in 2006.

April 23/02: Boeing announces a successful critical design review (CDR) for Project Wedgetail’s MESA radar and identification friend or foe subsystems.

“The review was completed on schedule and confirmed that the detailed design developed by Boeing S&C teammate Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems is producible, supportable, maintainable and will yield the required performance characteristics…. Boeing and Northrop Grumman also examined the interfaces between the design elements of the radar and between the radar subsystem and the other aircraft and mission system elements to make sure the radar/identification, friend or foe (IFF) subsystem will function properly within the entire airborne mission system.”

Nov 26/01: Boeing announces a successful preliminary design review (PDR) for the mission computing subsystem hardware in Project Wedgetail. It included a review of the hardware elements of the mission computing subsystem against the requirements assigned to that hardware. BAE Systems, New York is the Boeing subcontractor providing the mission computing hardware.

The hardware includes the mission computers, the mission system operator consoles and a tactical display in the cockpit. The mission computing subsystem processes and integrates basic data provided by various mission system sensors; analyzes and presents it to the operators as an integrated situation display of the battlespace environment; and provides them with controls of the sensors and communications suite.

Sept 19/01: Boeing announces a successful preliminary design review (PDR) of the radar and identification friend or foe (IFF) systems for Australia’s Project Wedgetail, on schedule and within budget.

The PDR includes a general review of the radar/IFF design against the Wedgetail radar subsystem requirements established by the Commonwealth of Australia. It is the first major design milestone in the development of this system.
Dec 20/2000: Boeing signs a contract with the Commonwealth of Australia for the development and acquisition of Project Wedgetail. The contract is worth A$ 3 billion according to the DoD release (about $2.04 billion). Defence Minister Moore:

“The AEW&C system is a strategically important capability that will make a major contribution to Australia’s air combat capability, significantly multiplying the combat power of the upgraded F/A-18 fleet. The system will improve command and control, and the capacity for air defence of surface ships. It also will enhance Australia’s strike capability.

“Importantly it will also provide support to Coastwatch activities, as it will be capable of covering four million square kilometres during a single 10 hour mission – that’s the equivalent of Darwin to Perth and back again.”

The contract involves 4 of its 737-700 systems, 6 AEW&C systems, and an option for up to 3 more aircraft at set prices. Initial training and support will also be part of the packagem and the in-service date for the first 2 aircraft is set for 2007. Note that in-service dates usually come some months after the delivery date, due to testing etc. Australian DoD Boeing release.

Aug 21/2000: Australia’s Minister for Defence John Moore announces that the Federal Government had decided to defer consideration of the Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) project to establish whether it fits into the balance of the ADF’s required capabilities in the context of the forthcoming Defence White Paper.

That White Paper is released on Dec 6/2000. It will be out of date in less than a year.

July 21/99: Boeing announces that its team has been selected as the preferred tenderer for Australia’s Project Wedgetail.

Jan 27/99: A Boeing-led team, including Northrop Grumman, British Aerospace Australia and Boeing Australia Limited, submits its response to a Request for Tender for Australia’s Project Wedgetail. It details the team’s solution to meet the AEW&C requirements of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), including 7 of its 737 AEW&C systems, plus ground support segments for flight and mission crew training, mission support and system modification support.

“Source selection is expected by mid-1999…. Australia’s AEW&C acquisition strategy that began a year ago with an Initial Design Activity (IDA) contract. During that period, the Boeing team and Australia worked together to develop an approved functional requirements baseline and then developed detailed subsystem design requirements.”

Boeing’s release also sets out team responsibilities:

Boeing (737-700, systems integrator)
Boeing Australia (systems engineering and airplane modification support, product support, ground support segments)
Northrop Grumman (MESA 360-degree steerable beam radar).
BAE Australia (ESM signal detection, electronic warfare self-protect subsystem, operational mission simulator and mission support segment,AEW&C support facility)
Qantas Airlines (maintenance support)
Dec 3/97: Australia’s DoD awards 3 Initial Design Activity contracts by the Australian Defence Force for the Project Wedgetail airborne early warning & control (AEW&C) system. The contracts are valued at A$ 8.5 million (about $6.5 million) each:

Boeing is offering Northrop Grumman’s MESA active-array radar atop its 737-700 jet.
Raytheon Systems Company is offering the Israeli Elta Phalcon radar mounted on an Airbus A310 widebody airframe.
Lockheed Martin is offering a mechanically steered UHF radar from Northrop Grumman that was derived from the E-2C Hawkeye, mounted on a C-130J-30 Hercules airframe.
Boeing’s release states that:

“Managing Director of Boeing Australia Limited, David Gray, said that the contract is worth $6.5 million and during the next year, Boeing will work “closely with the ADF on developing a design solution that meet its AEW&C requirements.”.... A production contract is expected to be awarded in 1999 and the Royal Australian Air Force plans to enter the AEW&C capability into service in 2002.”

Dec 2/97: Australian Minister for Defence Ian McLachlan announces government approval for acquisition of an AEW&C capability. The announcement was included in the Minister’s statement on Australia’s new strategic policy.

Feb 19/97: Boeing announces that it is offering its Next-Generation 737-700 aircraft to the Royal Australian Air Force as an Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) system platform. Australia has named the project “Wedgetail” in honor of its native eagle.

Oct 14/96: Australia’s Minister for Defence, Mr. Ian McLachlan announces the short-list of potential prime contractors: Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon E-Systems are selected after evaluation of responses to a world-wide Invitation to Register Interest in the AEW&C Project.

“Although two of the companies, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, have recently announced an intention to team for this project, both have asked to be considered separately until their teaming arrangements have been finalised.”

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