Though it lacks the anticipation and excitement surrounding the forthcoming Phase 6 capability upgrade planned for the RAAF’s E-7A Wedgetail Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) fleet, the Phase 5A compliance and interoperability upgrade of Project Air 5077 is nonetheless significant and has achieved some firsts.
The 2016 White Paper clearly stated Defence’s desire to maintain Australia’s technological edge in the AEW&C domain over forthcoming decades. Deputy Director AEW&C Wing Commander Ian Martin said it is clear that information and meta-information is becoming increasingly important to maintaining that edge in such an environment.
“As such, the changes to data throughput and bandwidth being implemented under Phase 5A are aimed at helping to enable the 5th generation Air Force to collaboratively share large amounts of strategic and tactical data to inform the commanders in the battlespace,” WGCDR Martin explained to ADM.
He added this would, in turn, allow for decentralisation of decision making to the lowest appropriate level, maintaining Australia’s traditional advantage in decision cycle speed, thereby contributing to the ADFs capability superiority.
Air 5077 Phase 5A is the first of two sequential upgrades designed to achieve this out to the 2035-2040 timeframe, by which time the six aircraft in the fleet will be approaching their end of life.
The $1.1 billion program, led by Boeing Defence Australia (BDA) and supported by subcontractors including Boeing Defence Space and Security USA and Northrop Grumman Systems Corporation, has been underway for five months and will be delivered in three releases (0.5, 1.0 and 2.0) over six years.
BDA 5A program manager Matthew Buckle told ADM the Release 0.5 modifications have been delivered to the first four aircraft, the first having been delivered to Air Force two months ahead of schedule.
“BDA is on track to complete the Release 0.5 upgrades to all six aircraft by early 2018,” Buckle said.
Release 0.5 incorporates upgrades that will keep Wedgetail compliant with mandated changes in the civilian environment. The aircraft will be equipped with the satellite position broadcast technology ADS-B Out, The European mandated Mode S Enhanced Surveillance transponder, and the latest version of the Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS 7.1).
WGCDR Martin said the mandatory Mode 5 IFF for allied aircraft will be incorporated under Release 1.0.
“Incidentally, the new Mark XIIA Mode 5 waveform provides an enhanced capability for Air Force, in that it includes an expanded data-set to be passed, including positional data.”
Release 1.0 modifications will commence early this year, with the aim of having two aircraft at the Mode 5 IFF Transponder Level 2 and Mode 5 IFF Interrogator Level 1 by early 2019.
Release 2.0 is planned to be delivered through 2021-22.
“As part of the Phase 5A upgrades, aircraft and associated support systems will be upgraded with new advanced tactical data links, communications hardware and encryption systems, as well as mission computing hardware and software upgrades,” Buckle said.
The aircraft will be fitted with a wideband SATCOM terminal that will use an “alternate satellite network” to WGS as the bearer, however it is part of a product line that may cater for WGS in the future, according to WGCDR Martin.
The wideband satellite connectivity will build on the key enabling function of Wedgetail first realised during Australia’s contribution to the war in Afghanistan – its connectivity to the Operational Headquarters, especially using Internet Protocol enabled information systems.
“Phase 5A is developing that initial capability; it is also delivering dual widescreen 27” displays that will allow the operators to declutter the workspace and manage more data electronically – it will essentially be DSN (Defence Secret Network) on the console.”
Although the introduction into service of Link-22 is being managed outside of the scope of Phase 5A, WGCDR Martin told ADM the plan was to introduce it onto the platform in the early 2020s in line with its implementation across other major ADF platforms.
“The ADF will implement the Link-22 standard in a Beyond Line of Sight (BLOS) HF configuration; Joint Capabilities Group will manage this centrally and whether we implement the equipment under Phase 6 or as part of our ongoing sustainment upgrades for the aircraft remains to be seen.”
The Wedgetail’s Mission System, including the Multi-role Electronically Scanned Radar (MESA), will benefit from improved processing power, with technology naturally having advanced considerably since the hardware was first developed in the late 1990s.
“The Wedgetail Mission System is essentially a giant flying computer – with regard to the primary radar, we are solving some obsolescence issues in radar processing hardware and for secondary (IFF) we are introducing an ability to interrogate Mode 5,” WGCDR Martin said.
Existing Wedgetail software will also be ported to a more contemporary and supportable operating system, with new algorithms added and changes made to the interface to ensure the IFF system can be tasked, operated and fused into the Integrated Mission System.
Group Captain Kevin Durant is currently the Officer Commanding the AEW&C System Program Office (SPO), his fourth Wedgetail posting.
“I was there for the first flight in Seattle, worked on it at 42 Wing when we delivered and flew the first aircraft for Air Force, then I was CO of the AEW&C SPO responsible for in-Service support and now I’ve come back as the OC overseeing both sustainment and the major upgrade projects.”
Acknowledging the difficult early days of the aircraft’s introduction into service, he said he was proud to have witnessed the capability of the aircraft mature and was pleased with the current level of 5A progress, particularly given its rare status as an Australian-led developmental program.
“To my knowledge it’s one of the first major aerospace acquisition programs the Commonwealth has undertaken using the Cost-Plus model, much like the US do for their developmental programs.”
Australia as lead customer can’t leverage off US experience for the upgrade work so the nature of the Cost-Plus model is very important, according to GPCAPT Durant.
“Such a contract model is very much centred on our relationship with BDA, which we have developed over many years; this relationship is essential because there is a fair amount of technical risk that needs to be managed.”
He said the model removes much of the commercial tension experienced during the acquisition phase, allowing a more transparent relationship which makes it easier to balance the cost/capability/schedule equation.
“The regular discussions taking place between the Commonwealth and industry program leads allow a better understanding of 5A’s progress against budget – these are good discussions, because when there is an element of technical risk we can deduce good technical design trade-offs to get the best capability for our money,” GPCAPT Durant said.
“My impression is that the prime has been very open and transparent in showing us where the costs are going. You’ve got to have that otherwise the trust becomes an issue, we’ve worked hard on those relationships over the last few years and we’re reaping the benefits of that now.”
Engagement with industry on the scope of the Phase 6 AEW&C Mid Life upgrade has begun, but much depends on Investment Committee Gate Zero approval scheduled in the first quarter of 2018.
“We’ll be looking for a similar contract arrangement balancing risk and reward for Phase 6, for which we’re anticipating an Initial/Final Operating Capability window of 2025/27,” GPCAPT Durant said. “The important thing is how we integrate Wedgetail as the centre of the network for our new 5th Generation capabilities.”
This article first appeared in the February edition of ADM.