July 2004 
Volume 03, Issue 3 
Integrated Defense Systems


Wedgetail opens next chapter of Airborne Early Warning and Control era


the first Wedgetail aircraftOn May 20, a 25-year-old Australian dream became reality. That's when-ahead of schedule-the first Project Wedgetail 737-700 aircraft took to the skies over Seattle on its initial flight and launched a new era in airborne surveillance and command and control.

Since the late 1970s, Australia has been working toward acquiring this kind of capability. But it wasn't until a convergence of the right platform and right technology that it became affordable to Australia and other potential customers. The end result was the pairing of the Boeing Next-Generation 737-700 aircraft with Northrop Grumman's Multi-role Electronically Scanned Array antenna.

The 737-700 features 21st-century avionics, navigation equipment and flight deck. It has the speed, range, endurance and payload capacity to meet the requirements of the airborne early warning and control mission. Because the 737 is the most popular commercial jet in the world, there's a global support network.

The MESA antenna is designed to provide optimal performance in range, tracking and accuracy. The radar is able to track airborne and maritime targets simultaneously and can help the mission crew direct the control of high-performance fighter aircraft as it continuously scans the operational area.

Patrick Gill, Boeing Integrated Defense Systems vice president of 737 Airborne Early Warning and Control programs, said the modification work to transform a green 737 into an airborne early warning and control platform has gone extremely well because of the use of state-of-the-art digital design and manufacturing.

"With our digital design, the parts go together the right way, the first time around," he said. For example, he said, pilot holes drilled from two different manufacturers in two different locations fit perfectly.

"Not only are we ahead of schedule and within our target labor hours, but the quality of work is excellent," Gill said, complimenting the "commitment, hard work and dedication of our employees, our customer, our suppliers and our industry partners."

Mark Rosenberger, Boeing IDS 737 AEW&C aircraft manager, said the effort by employees is the soul of this new machine.

"Over the past years, all of them have had at least one sleepless night thinking about an item they were working on," he said. "They've all had late dinners, missed a few of those school plays or Little League games, spent many late nights and weekends here at work, and the list goes on. So, when the aircraft rolled by the hangar on May 20 and those hairs on the back of their necks stood up . that was the soul of the aircraft saying, 'thank you.'"

Other extensive systems installations and modifications for the Wedgetail aircraft included new power and cooling systems, mission consoles and modifications to the environmental control and hydraulic systems. Hundreds of miles of wire were installed, and the generating capacity to run the mission systems and radar will equal that of a Boeing 777-300.

It's no accident that the Puget Sound region of Washington state is handling the modification job. Boeing looked at all locations throughout the United States and balanced risk, shipside engineering support, customer involvement, cost and schedule. When all was said and done, Puget Sound came out on top.

Rich Lukezic, Boeing IDS senior manager for aircraft modification on the 737 AEW&C program, said the area has many advantages. As the home of the 737, the workforce there "is available, knowledgeable and experienced," he said.

Lukezic added that Puget Sound workers have the experience of building the 767 AWACS planes, which are similar in many respects to the 737 AEW&C aircraft, and can build on lessons learned in that program.

"When you're talking about a developmental program of a limited quantity, there is a real advantage to keeping manufacturing resources close to engineering and working as one team," Lukezic said. "Here we can keep a short line of communication so changes to the plan have a minimal impact."

Lukezic said the program is committed to new processes and approaches and to maximizing the use of the digital design model straight to the shop floor. "We made sure we're giving the mechanics the same tools the engineers are using," he said.

Wedgetail is not just an effort by Integrated Defense Systems. Gill has high praise for employees at Boeing Commercial Airplanes in Renton, Wash., and Wichita, Kan. "They not only built this beautiful aircraft, but did so while meeting their cost, quality and schedule commitments," Gill said.

He pointed out that 737 AEW&C is more than an airborne radar. It also provides command and control, special operations support, maritime patrol, search and rescue, and civil operations support.

Boeing is offering a total system for Project Wedgetail, from mission and flight crew training to software and engineering support.

Air Vice Marshal Norm Gray, head of Australia's Airborne Surveillance and Control Division, said Wedgetail will be an invaluable asset in enhancing his country's intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance picture.

"Wedgetail will make a major contribution to our air combat capability," Gray said. "The system will significantly improve command and control and the capacity for air defense of surface ships. It also will enhance Australia's strike capability."

Gray said the aircraft will be a critical node in the Australian Defence Force's development of network-centric warfare.

"Additionally, it will be interoperable with our key coalition partners and provide an extremely valuable niche capability for future coalition operations," he said.

In accomplishing these missions, the 737 AEW&C will be an integral part of Boeing's vision for the integrated battle space, where real-time information is quickly and simultaneously accessible to all U.S. and allied forces.

What's next for Project Wedgetail? Since the aircraft's first flight, it's been flying on a regular basis as part of a rigorous airworthiness certification program. That'll wrap up in December. Crews in Seattle are currently modifying aircraft No. 2. The MESA antenna is scheduled for installation this fall, with flight testing of the airborne mission expected to begin next spring.

Recently, Boeing signed a contract with Australia for two additional 737-700 aircraft. This expands the Wedgetail fleet to six and, according to Air Vice Marshal Gray, will allow the Australian Defence Force to almost double its airborne surveillance and control ability.

Gill sees this purchase as a demonstration of the Australian government's confidence in the Wedgetail program and in Boeing's ability to meet requirements and deliver this powerful capability on time and on budget.

"It also validates the investment Boeing and its partners have made to provide this airborne early warning and command and control system around the world," Gill said.

Turkey has followed Australia into the 737 AEW&C family, signing a contract for four systems. Design work on the Peace Eagle program is well under way, and delivery of the first aircraft is scheduled for 2007. At the same time, Boeing is offering the 737 AEW&C system to South Korea as part of its airborne surveillance and command and control program. A contract could be awarded by end of the year.



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