I visited the RAAF’s new AEW&C Squadron at RAAF Willamtown at Newcastle, NSW to gain an insight into the operations of the E-7A Wedgetails.
2 Sqn / No 42 Wing – Surveillance and Response Group – AEW&C “Wedgetail”
With the striking red lightning bolt squadron marking and Wedgetail call sign, 2 Sqn leads a new era of defence doctrine with the E-7A AWACS aircraft fleet which will significantly improve future management of the technological battlefield environment which the RAAF operates in.
Motto – To Advise and Strike
No. 2 Squadron was established as a unit of the Australian Flying Corps (AFC) in Egypt in 1916, initially flying D.H.5 fighters. It then moved to France where it was heavily involved as a ground attack unit during the famous Battle of Cambrai. The unit was re-equipped with Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5s early in 1918, moving from ground attack to a new role of a pure fighter unit. By the end of WW1 the squadron had produced 17 flying aces each with 5 or more kills. After WW1, 2 Squadron was disbanded and wasn’t reformed until 1937 and stationed at RAAF Laverton in Victoria.
A beautiful Vietnam War Canberra bomber artwork as on display in 2 Sqn reception
At the outbreak of the Second World War the unit searched for enemy vessels in Australian waters using Anson aircraft. After being re-equipped with Hudson aircraft, the squadron moved to Darwin in April 1941 to perform anti-submarine activities and general reconnaissance. During 1943 Beaufort bombers were introduced and were flown throughout the Pacific theatre. With the rate of development of aircraft technology by mid 1944, the Beaufort was exchanged for B-25 Mitchell bombers. These aircraft were used up until the end of the war. After the war, the squadron assumed transport operations until it moved to their home base of RAAF Laverton in December 1945, where it was downsized and eventually disbanded on 15 May 1946.
In the 1950s the squadron was reactivated and flew Avro Lincolns. By 1955 they had upgraded to the English Electric Canberras B.20 and were active again in South East Asia in dropping bombs in the Malayan Emergency. After returning home, they were again redeployed from 1967 because 2 Sqn’s precise Canberra bombing capabilities were back in demand. They operated from Phan Rang Air Base in South Vietnam for over 4years before returning home in 1971. Due to its 3 awards from actions in the Vietnam War, 2 Sqn has the distinction of being the most highly decorated squadron in the RAAF to date. After Vietnam, the squadron was based at RAAF Amberley flying the Canberra for target towing and aerial mapping of Australia and overseas up until it was disbanded in 1982. In 2000, the squadron was again reformed for active service, as it was to be in a few years time operating the newest air capability the RAAF has acquired – Airborne Early Warning & Control (AEW&C).
RISE OF THE WEDGE TAIL EAGLE
The RAAF started in 1996 a program which was to form a component of its future expansion plans and this new capability was devised to give the RAAF its own AEW&C fleet. A RFP was issued by the RAAF to the aviation industry for the AWE&C project and in 1999 Boeing/Northrop-Grumman Wedgetail AEW&C system was successfully chosen. The Boeing project uses the basis of a 737-700 airframe modified into an AWE&C platform with Northrop Grumman and other companies supplying the radar/defensive system.
In 2000, Boeing was awarded a contract to supply four AEW&C aircraft, with the option for an additional two to be taken up later. Additionally the RAAF decided to reactivate 2 Squadron, which was reformed on 18 January 2000 and once reestablished was moved to its new home base at RAAF Williamtown in early 2004. During 2006, 42 Wing was also reformed to oversee and control 2 Sqn operations.
E-7A on display at Avalon Airshow
The development of the Wedgetail system meanwhile was subjected to many delays. It was developed from the Boeing BBJ Business jet which was then merged with complex AEW&C technology during the late 1990s / early 2000s. A variety of technological issues with the radar system involved required extensive developing / testing to ensure they would work and integrate as required. These problems caused the Wedgetail program to fall behind schedule on a number of occasions. During 2006, the delays incurred were causing some serious worries for both the Air Force and Boeing/Northrop Grumman. As with most military projects, these delays were eventually overcome and the program proceeded to reach various milestones, with the initial aircraft delivery to the RAAF finally taking place 3 years later in 2009.
The remaining 5 aircraft were spread across the next 3 years with the last aircraft delivered in June 2012. The E-7A Wedgetail aircraft are now in service with serials A30-001 to A30-006.
The E-7A military lineage is identified by the Northrop Grumman canoe shaped MESA (Multirole Electronically Steered Antenna) array mounted on top of the fuselage. In addition, the aircraft are highly modified with numerous external modifications which are part of countermeasure systems mounted and these are located on the nose, wingtips and tail sensors/communication system and self protection. Other modifications to the airframe have included the addition for stability of 2 ventral fins on the lower rear fuselage under the tail. The drag index incurred by these various external modifications make some changes to the 737 flight profile but the aircraft is able to accommodate these changes due to the powerful CFM-56 engines.
Using the new capability which comes with AEW&C operations means that the squadron is now a core component of the Royal Australian Air Force’s Surveillance and Response Group (SRG). The SRG brings together specific assets to enable the RAAF to conduct operations and is responsible for
- air surveillance assets,
- maritime warfare,
- aerospace, surveillance and battle space management,
- surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities
- developing and maintaining specific electronic warfare (EW) capabilities.
These ranges of capabilities mean the RAAF can now deploy more high technological aircraft to operations in both maritime and land environments. This sees 2 Sqn forming one part of this component flying from RAAF Williamtown, while operating AP-3C Orions from RAAF Edinburgh, 10 and 11 Sqn form the other airborne component. The introduction of the E-7A platform represents an entirely new capability for the Australian Defence Force which it has never had before. It will also begin to reap another benefit as the E-7A becomes a core force multiplier that will enable the RAAF, for the first time to have an airborne capability to gather information from a wide variety of sources, analyse/manage the data and then via the networked system, distribute it to other RAAF units, various ADF land/maritime assets and other allied/friendly units.
FLYING THE WEDGETAIL
The E-7A is based on the commercial civil 737-700 which has then been modified to meet the RAAF’s role of an AEW&C platform. The aircraft is built as a green airframe and then transferred to a modification line where a gap was cut in the rear top fuselage to the take the radar mount. Overall the civil airliner 737 has adapted well to a “new”, late in life military product line. This comes nearly 50years after it first flew. The other new upcoming military maritime variant, the P-8 Poseidon is also based on the 737 and shows the design still has a lot of life left in it.
In ramping up its training of the aircrew to fly and operate the Wedgetail, the RAAF has already gained some experience operating the 737 airframe, a specialized VIP version based on the BBJ is in use by 34 Sqn at RAAF Fairbairn. This useful experience gained by 34 Sqn has seen specific information passed onto 2 Sqn, with the sharing of operational, technical and other associated skills. Additionally the 2 Sqn gained further experience when personnel were attached to 34 Squadron, where they learnt the 737 aircraft flight characteristics, how the squadron operated and how they maintained the airframes. Interestingly the RAAF allowed Virgin Airlines to become involved in the program in the past, by sending some of its future Wedgetail aircrews to fly on Virgins Airlines civil 737 aircraft on normal domestic routes. This was so the RAAF aircrew members could build up 737 air time, along with learning areas such as maintenance, operations and general aircraft handling skills.
RAAF E-7A Wedgetail landing in the UK 2012 (Photo/copyright Tony Lowther)
The RAAF Wedgetail operation has a crew of 2 qualified pilots in the cockpit, a Captain and a Co-pilot flying the aircraft. They are trained with the required multi engine and CRM skills as required for the aircraft type. A flight trainer is in use at RAAF Williamtown to train the pilots, thus saving the high value airframes from using up unnecessary flight hours. The flight crews are further trained at the squadron level for special skills relating to the mission roles which can include defensive tactics flying in hostile airspaces and air to air refuelling. The E-7A carries 7 other personnel who are the mission crew, otherwise known as Air Combat Officers / Airborne Electronic Analysts. These members operate the electronic radar system. There is room for another 3 more operators if needed.
All of the ACO/AEA crews sit at workstations using computer screens and keyboards to process the electronic data generated by the mission computers. The Air Combat Officers are the heart of the system, where they analyse and process the data of the radar returns. In a battle environment the crew would be monitoring the strike packages and what enters or leaves the target areas.
Due to Australia’s vast size and large and unequal population distribution, this has resulted in a rather challenging situation in that the RAAF is required to protect and maintain the airspace integrity over the large land mass against a host of different and challenging aerial intruders. To operate as an AWACs the RAAF chose an aircraft which had the capability to fly for long distances and times. The E-7A has up to 10hrs endurance and can cruise at 760km/h. The maximum ceiling is 41,000ft. On a typical short range mission, the aircraft can fly for over 9hrs at a range of 300nm from an airbase/airport while conducting surveillance missions. The overall range of the E-7A is 6,482km which can be easily extended by further in-flight air to air refueling. The E-7A air to air refuelling capability enables it to refuel with boom equipped such as USAF KC-135/KC-10s and in the future the RAAF’s new MRTT KC-30A.
Having the new capabilities of the AEW&C will make such a task as airborne surveillance and battlefield control much more manageable, as the E-7A will work with JORN (Jindalee Operational Radar Network) , Air Defence Ground Based radars and operations centres when operating within Australia’s airspace. JORN radar is able to pick up long range 1500nm+ targets and when deployed the E-7A will be able to, focus on the closer range engagement range as they pass the outer limits less than 500km which is when the MESA radar comes into its own.
WEDGETAIL’S EYES AND EARS
The MESA radar which is the heart of the onboard system, has a range of over 400km, can monitor up to 3,000 targets at once and can see deep into airspace ahead for very low and high flying unknown targets. The MESA radar is quite an advanced system which is still being tested and learnt by the squadron. The aircraft using this radar system can maintain constant surveillance over a surface area of in excess of 400,000 square kilometers and over a 10-hour mission, the E-7A could cover as much as 4 million square kilometers of airspace in that time. The MESA radar has the ability to use multiple modes such as:
- a selectable, near instantaneous, rotation of the radar scanner through a complete 360 degree sweep which allows the operators to focus the search beam on a narrow area,
- a wide angle area search function which can use enhanced capabilities to expand the detection range of the operators.
- a scan of air and surface targets is enabled alongside a selectable Dedicated, Platform Stabilized, Ground Stabilized and Background Sectors.
- embedded IFF capability.
E-7A Avalon display showing the MESA radar and CFM-56 engines
In conjunction with the MESA radar system, the aircraft has extensive Electronic Surveillance Measures (ESM) onboard to enhance its role. These systems include the Elta ALR-2001 which a similar type is found on the AP-3C Orions, Northrop Grumman AN/AAQ-24(V) Directed Infra-Red Counter Measures (DIRCM), Northrop Grumman AN/AAR-54 Missile Warning System (MWS), Elisra LWS-20 MWS and ALE-47 Counter Measures Dispenser (CMDS).
In building up its own capabilities to operate the E-7 mission computers/MESA radar systems, the RAAF posted personnel on exchange to USAF E-3C, US Navy E-2C and RAF E-3D AWAC communities, so it could gain a broader insight and training background regarding how to use an AWAC platform. These program personnel exchanges for both pilots and mission operators, has helped contribute to the long term training on the operational plans which will be used by the crews. Additionally these acquired skills have helped to also develop the RAAF’s operational manual on how to effectively use the E-7A in a combat environment sooner, than if it had to develop these capabilities from scratch.
The main role for the E-7A AEW&C is that it will control the tactical battle space, providing the necessary commands for fighter aircraft, surface combatants and land based elements to take either the defensive or offensive as required. It will also be valuable in providing support to other systems such as UAV platforms in the future. In order to do such mission profiles, the aircraft carries a large communication suite onboard with systems such as Link-11, Link-16, HF, VHF, UHF, UHF SATCOM and ICS utilised. This data linking capability has been found over the years to assist in improving the situational, tactical and strategic awareness for unit commanders and operational groups in exercises and battle. The Wedgetail is also able to assist with defensive counter-air, offensive counter-air, maritime strike and interdiction, dynamic targeting, air-air refueling and personnel recovery.
MAINTAINING THE EAGLES
To maintain such a capability as the Wedgetail into the future, the program is dependent on a series of support functions which will enable the aircrafts, the various systems and aircrew to remain active, up to date and ready to deploy. These subsystems which support the program include the AEW&C Support Facility (ASF), Operational Mission Simulator (OMS), Mission Support Segment (MSS), and Operational Flight Trainer (OFT). A lot of money and time has been invested into these support areas and the results are showing after nearly 10years, with the RAAF now actively deploying the Wedgetail fleet to local defence exercises and overseas defence exercises.
The other critical and rarely seen maintenance is the Life Support Fitters of 2 Sqn who maintain all the required flightgear and rescue equipment to ensure the aircrew are safe when flying. Their tasks are look after life rafts, survival vest and headsets. Normal survival equipment like life jackets, life rafts are checked and maintained in storage by the 2 Sqn life support fitters.
Typical aircrew life jacket
Some of the many tools used in ALSE work
For larger items such as overhauls or 30 days inspections of the life raft they are sent to the manufacturer at this stage. Due to the AEW&C aircraft been a front line asset, the aircrews are issued with Air Warrior survival vests. These vests are essentially the same type of combat vest as worn by the F/A-18 pilots, except 2 Sqn are a black colour. This survival vest is useful as it has many special survival equipment and tools for if the aircrews have to bail out and need to be self sustained while awaiting rescue.
The Air Warrior vest
The RAAF is not alone in operating the Boeing designed 737 platform AEW&C aircraft with South Korea and Turkey now also flying these aircraft. Other possible sales are being examined by Boeing and potential customers are seeking such a niche AEW&C capability. Looking ahead during 2012, 2 Squadron has already undertaken various training missions around Australia and has flown overseas across the Pacific to Europe and Northern America for further exercises. These exercises are slowly building up the necessary skills of the crews onboard as they learn how to use the systems and understand how to utilise the E-7A in simulated battle. The RAAF has stated that in the future, a permanent detachment of E-7As are planned to be based at RAAF Tindal, while the remainder of the squadron will operate from RAAF Williamtown, other bases or on overseas missions/deployment as required. At press time the squadron is working towards an IOC (Initial Operating Capability) and this is expected to be gained by late 2012. A FOC (Final Operating Capability) for the E-7A Wedgetail fleet is planned for 2013.
The future of Australia is in safe hands with aircraft and the personnel assigned to the Wedgetail, which will see them watching from up high… alongside the JORN and other ISTR assets used by the ADF. They will be searching for intruders and other aircraft as they enter the air and sea space surrounding Australia .If needs be they will be deployed overseas.
If you are interested in a career flying aircraft like the E-7 AWAC, operating the radar systems or helping to maintain the aircraft it is recommended you get in touch with Defence Force Recruiting at: www.defencejobs.gov.au/recruitmentcentreor by calling 13 19 01.