Around five dozen American airmen will head to Australia this summer to learn how to fly and repair the E-7 Wedgetail command-and-control jet, as the U.S. Air Force looks to accelerate the acquisition program by any means necessary.

Their visit — four years before the Air Force expects to receive its first E-7 — aims to speed up the service’s transition away from its nearly 50-year-old E-3 Sentry aerial target tracking jets.

Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown Jr. noted the upcoming trip at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday, in which Department of the Air Force leadership defended their budget priorities for the coming fiscal year.

“We’re going to be able to send … in June, close to 50 to 60 of our airmen to actually start training on the E-7s, so when we do get our aircraft, we’ll have trained operators and maintainers to help accelerate bringing the E-7 into our inventory,” Brown said.

The modern airframes would improve the Air Force’s ability to tell who is traveling in nearby airspace, where they are going and how quickly — information that’s crucial for keeping tabs on foreign forces or for directing friendly aircraft in an air campaign.

In February, the service awarded Boeing a $1.2 billion contract to begin work on two prototype jets that are slated for delivery in 2027. It plans to buy a total of 26 E-7s by 2032.

Australia, Turkey, South Korea and the United Kingdom already own, or are in the process of building, their own E-7s as well.

Readying the first two prototypes is expected to require $2.7 billion and four years in total: two years to build the commercial Boeing 737 airframes, plus another two years to outfit and test them with military-grade radars and communications equipment.

That timeline is still too slow for Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, who said the service hasn’t found any feasible ways to accelerate the program’s early stages. The service is trying to make it possible for Boeing to deliver more aircraft faster once full production gets underway in 2025.

Pressed by Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., on what became of an extra $200 million that Congress provided last December to speed up the acquisition, Brown said it helped pay for initial development and to get a head start on building up its inventory of E-7 parts.

But Kendall couldn’t say for certain whether receiving more money than requested has saved the program any time. He argued the initial jets will take four years regardless of how much money Congress throws at them.

“I did a personal review of the steps that are necessary to get it into the first phase of testing, and we couldn’t find a way to redo that,” he said.

More money would help speed later batches of aircraft, Kendall told lawmakers, but the service felt it couldn’t afford to ask for that funding in the fiscal 2024 budget. The Air Force requested $681 million to develop the jet in the coming year, plus another $633 million to speed its delivery as part of a separate wish list to Congress.

“That program has been moving as fast as we’re able to move it,” Kendall said.

While the E-7 is one of several programs that are designed to rapidly deliver prototypes, the service still faces funding shortfalls that may keep those from moving forward, according to the budget documents.

But demand for the aircraft is mounting as the E-3s grow more expensive and difficult to maintain. The Air Force is in the process of retiring its 31-jet Sentry fleet, which could number just 16 by the end of fiscal 2024.

The sooner the U.S. version of the Wedgetail can arrive to replace them, the better, Air Force officials argue.

“I just wanted more than twins,” Air Combat Command boss Gen. Mark Kelly said in February, referring to the first two E-7s. “I want as many of those kids as I can.”

Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.

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