16 November 2023
NATO has selected its next generation command and control aircraft as the existing Boeing E-3A Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) fleet nears retirement. Production of the six new Boeing’s E-7A Wedgetail aircraft is set to begin in the coming years, with the first aircraft expected to be ready for operational duty by 2031. A consortium of NATO member states approved the project this month. It will be one of NATO’s biggest-ever capability purchases. Although no contract value was disclosed, based on UK and US contract information the price could hit $5 billion.
NATO did not specify why it chose to replace its fleet of 14 AWACS planes with only six Wedgetails, but it said the new aircraft would have better capabilities and be more expensive than their predecessors. The AWACS aircraft and a small fleet of surveillance drones are the only equipment that NATO as an organization owns. The AWACS are staffed with multinational crews from 19 of the 31 member states.
The replacement E-7A Wedgetail is an advanced early warning and control aircraft that provides situational awareness and command and control functions. Equipped with a powerful radar, the aircraft can detect hostile aircraft, missiles and ships at great distances and can direct NATO combat aircraft to their targets. Türkiye, the UK and USA also either fly the Wedgetail or plan to operate it. It is based on a militarised version of the 737 commercial airliner. Australia also uses Wedgetails and has made one available for use along NATO’s eastern flank.
Aside from Boeing, US prime contractors L3 Harris and Northrop Grumman, as well as Sweden’s SAAB, were all part of the initial selection process. In March 2023 Boeing was awarded a contract by the US Air Force, worth up to a maximum value of $1.2 billion, to launch Wedgetail development. The contract between NATO and Boeing is expected to be signed in 2024.
“Surveillance and control aircraft are crucial for NATO’s collective defence and I welcome Allies’ commitment to investing in high-end capabilities,” said NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. “By pooling resources, Allies can buy and operate major assets collectively that would be too expensive for individual countries to purchase. This investment in state-of-the-art technology shows the strength of transatlantic defence cooperation as we continue to adapt to a more unstable world”.
NATO has operated a fleet of 14 E-3A AWACS aircraft since the 1980s. They were purchased in 1977 at the height of the Cold War and are continually being refurbished to keep them flying until 2035. With their rotating radar, the modified Boeing 707 jets can detect aircraft at more than 400 kilometres. Based at Geilenkirchen airbase in Germany, the AWACS have flown in every major NATO operation, including missions in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq, the protection of US sites after 9/11 and high-profile events such as the 2006 World Cup in Germany and summit meetings. They are currently operating to protect NATO’s eastern flank following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and can also be used for air policing, evacuation operations and to provide help during natural disasters. The E-7A is also expected to have its main base at Geilenkirchen and could operate from several forward locations across Europe.