WASHINGTON — The Air Force said this week a contract to buy a replacement for the aging E-3G Sentry — also known as the AWACS, or Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft — could come in fiscal 2023.
According to a request for information released Tuesday, the service wants to know within 30 days how a potential contractor would deliver at least two prototype aircraft to replace the AWACS, including ground support and training systems, within five years of an expected 2023 award.
The Air Force noted the RFI was issued for its own planning purposes and is not a promise to issue a request for proposals in the future. But it provides the fullest picture yet of the time frame and requirements the service may be eying for the E-3′s replacement.
The E-3 AWACS, which dates back to the 1970s, is a heavily modified Boeing 707 with an unmistakable 30-foot rotating radar dome above its fuselage. It provides command and control and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities to manage the battlefield, and its radar has a range of more than 250 miles.
The Air Force has flown the AWACS in numerous conflicts in recent decades, including the Gulf War and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and has used it in support of humanitarian relief operations after hurricanes Rita and Katrina by coordinating military and civilian rescue efforts.
But the Air Force’s 31 E-3s are 43 years old on average, and keeping them maintained has become more and more challenging, prompting one top general to push for a replacement as soon as possible.
The Air Force’s statistics on mission-capable rates show the increasing difficulty in keeping the AWACS in the air. The E-3G’s mission-capable rates plunged 10 percentage points last year from 70.7% in 2020 to 60.7% in 2021. The E-3B similarly slumped from 65.8% to 55.8% during that same period.
The Air Force wants companies responding to the RFI to explain how their proposed replacement aircrafts would deliver multiple capabilities the AWACS now provides. Those capabilities should include an advanced Airborne Moving Target Indication radar that could maintain a 360-degree surveillance picture while homing in on targets and perform real-time data processing of targets, the RFI said.
The Air Force also wants to know how a replacement aircraft would tell the difference between friendly and enemy forces, conduct radar-based maritime surveillance, and conduct simultaneously at least six battle management command and control missions — including air traffic control, close air support, suppression of enemy air defenses, air refueling, and combat search and rescue.
Boeing’s E-7 Wedgetail, now flown by the Royal Australian Air Force, is one of the leading contenders to replace the AWACS. Pacific Air Forces commander Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach told reporters a year ago he wanted the Air Force to move fast and buy the Wedgetail to replace the E-3, which he said was getting “harder and harder to get airborne.”
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown at the time took a more cautious stance.
“Were going to have to do something,” Brown said last February. “I don’t know what that ‘something’ is yet. We’ve got to really look at what the options are, and the Wedgetail is one of those. But it may not be the only option.”
In October, the Air Force announced its intention to award a sole-source contract to Boeing to study a potential acquisition of the Wedgetail and the work the aircraft would require to meet the service’s needs.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.