After months of speculation, in April the Air Force officially chose the Boeing E-7 Wedgetail to replace its decades-old AWACS planes. But there’s a lag between making the choice and flying the planes — during which Mitchell Institute Executive Director Douglas Birkey says Congress and the Air Force must work together in a hurry to minimize the American military’s vulnerability in the skies.
In recent weeks, members of Congress have pressed Air Force leaders on a key topic: Can the service acquire E-7 Wedgetails faster? It’s a question that is well founded, and worth serious consideration.
Fighting and winning in modern air combat demands accurate, timely, and effective command and control (C2) to ensure aircraft are at the right place at the right time to best secure mission results. This is far from an easy task given the hundreds of thousands of square miles that comprise aerial theaters, the high number of dynamic assets in play — both friendly and enemy — and the extreme speeds at which they are flying. Given the fragile state of the 40-year-old E-3 airborne warning and control aircraft (AWACS) currently executing this mission, and the reality that leap-ahead technology is likely not going to be operationally mature until the next decade, driving to a tangible solution as soon as possible makes sense. Looming threats within the current decade demand the accelerated buy of the E-7.
The essence of aerial command and control comes down to understanding when and where to place aircraft to best secure mission results. Think about the Battle of Britain to better understand the model. Radar stations detected inbound enemy aircraft, that data was routed to command-and-control stations where trained experts transformed it into actionable information, and then Royal Air Force fighters were vectored for intercepts. It was tremendously effective and drove major operational efficiencies, because aircraft were not just wandering around hoping to run into enemy forces. They knew when and where to fly with tremendous precision. This latter point was especially important given that the RAF only had 446 fighters to ward off 3,500 operational German combat aircraft in the summer of 1940 [PDF].
Obviously, systems are more capable now than they were then — but so are the enemy’s. Small force dynamics are also at play again. Consider that the Air Force only has roughly 160 F-35s and 100 F-22s operationally available. Even when older types, like F-15s and F-16s, are factored into the equation, the fighter force is less than half the size [PDF] of the one that fought in Desert Storm. Making the most of a small force demands smart C2.
While it is true that a far more disaggregated set of sensors, processing power, and communication links will eventually comprise a future aerial command and control enterprise, that technology is not available today. It will take years to mature joint all domain command and control (JADC2) to a level where we can reliably count on it in combat. Failing to buy a bridge solution will gap the critical command and control mission. This is exactly what is happening with the E-8 joint surveillance target attack radar system (JSTARS)—a ground-focused counterpart to the AWACS. The aircraft are worn out, a bridge solution was cancelled due to budget constraints, and the vision for a next generation solution remains aspirational. Sending forces into battle blind is a bad bet to make and should not be repeated.
It is also important to consider the human capital part of the equation. Airmen are directly tied to their aircraft. Take away the means to execute their mission and their career field implodes. Want proof? Look at what happened to electronic warfare operators when the Air Force failed to backfill the EF-111 in the 1990s. The mission is more important than ever, but the career field is an anemic fraction of what it used to be. It will take a decade or more to reconstitute necessary electronic warfare talent in the Air Force.
We cannot take that sort of risk with aerial C2. What these experts—known as air battle managers (ABM)—execute is incredibly complex and unique. Much like a football coach orchestrating a play on the field, these airmen can comprehend incredibly complex scenarios and help align individual actors to maximize their mission effectiveness, while also keeping them out of undue danger. They think in seconds and minutes about very specific battle space lanes, not hours and days that define higher echelons of C2. Sunsetting AWACS without a viable, direct replacement will ravage the ABM career field, which is already under tremendous strain given what is happening with the JSTARS.
This notion of timing is especially important given that new E-7s are not expected to hit operational flightlines until the end of the decade. In the meantime, service leaders want to begin retiring the AWACS now, with half of the inventory set for divestment in FY23. That sort of gap presents incredible risk.
A better option would see the Air Force partner with Congress to accelerate the E-7 acquisition process. Options include the Air Force requesting reprogramming of FY22 money with new start authority so they can get the E-7 on contract months earlier than currently planned. It is also worth looking at ordering more than one aircraft with the initial contract, while also working to ensure sub-contractors are empowered to accelerate delivery of long lead items, like radar and avionics.
Another option would involve the US trying to gain advanced production slots ahead of allied buys; how successful that might be may depend on what kind of offsets and promises could be offered to those nations as a trade. The Air Force should also explore the possibility of accepting allied certifications of the aircraft who already operate the E-7 (Australia, United Kingdom, and Republic of Korea) rather than spending years reinventing what has largely been accomplished.
Bottom line, speed is the Air Force’s friend when it comes to resetting the aerial C2 mission. That is what accelerating change or losing is all about. Options exist and statements from both sides of the aisle suggest extreme willingness to pull several of the levers that can help accelerate the process. It is time to get on with it.
Douglas Birkey is the executive director of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.