NATO’s 14 E-3A Sentry advanced air strike aircraft will soon be replaced by six Boeing E-7A Wedgetails. A big favorite for over a year, this aircraft still represents a significant leap in capacity for NATO.
A breathless legend
Since 1982, NATO has held a fleet of advanced air strike and command (AEW&C) aircraft, through a collaboration of 15+1 signatory states to the North Atlantic Treaty. At this time, the first E-3s, a Boeing 707 airliner modified with a Westinghouse radar and the AWACS detection system, flew to provide surveillance of NATO airspace. However, despite various upgrades, these planes are becoming too old, maintenance is longer and the detection systems are no longer as effective as the systems currently available on the market. In fact, the NAEW&C Program Management Organization (NAPMO), the organization in charge of the maintenance and use of the aircraft, had already retired 3 Sentries and a fourth had crashed, bringing back the basic fleet of 18 to 14 devices currently in service.
Since November 15, the successor to the Sentry has been known: the NATO agency in charge of equipment purchases (NATO Support and Procurement Agency or NSPA) has announcement the choice of Boeing’s E-7A Wedgetail. In total, six aircraft are currently expected, with operational entry into service in 2031. This fleet will have to quickly ramp up because the last Sentrys should be definitively retired by 2035. The selection of the Wedgetail was decided by the NSPA but also by a group of seven partner countries:
- United States,
- the Netherlands,
… without surprise
On March 31, 2022, Boeing officially announced that its Boeing-Abiliti partnership was responsible for the feasibility and risk reduction study (RRFS) for future NATO AEW&C aircraft. Concretely, this study was very important because it aimed to predict the future needs and missions of this fleet of advanced air surveillance and command aircraft. From then on, it is certain that with Boeing at the controls, the E-7A had a serious advantage in the competition.
Speaking of competition, modern AEW&C aircraft are rare on the market: currently, very few manufacturers can afford to develop and produce such aircraft. Saab was thus the only viable competitor to the Wedgetail, by offering its GlobalEye. This plane is a Bombardier 6000/6500 equipped with numerous sensors and above all, an AESA Erieye ER radar placed in a “ski” box located above the aircraft.
If the surprise was not one, the Wedgetail still represents a significant leap in capabilities for the NATO AEW&C fleet. The base aircraft is a Boeing 737-700 NG equipped with a huge Multir-Role Electronically Scanned Array radar almost 10 meters long. Much more precise than the E-3A Sentry radars, this radar also has the particularity of having an adjustable detection range: the 360° range is greater than 400 kilometers, however, the power of certain sensors (for example, those directed towards allied lines) can be reduced in favor of sensors located towards the area of interest. This manipulation thus reduces the range over an area of low threat, while increasing the detection range over the area of interest.