US Air Force spends $1.2B to replace its Cold War-era E-3 Sentry AWACS fleet

The US Air Force has given Boeing a $1.2 billion contract to replace the old E-3 Sentry AWACS aircraft with new versions of the Boeing E-7.
Christopher McFadden
The venerable E-3 is to finally be replaced.


According to an official press release, Boeing has been awarded a $1.2 billion contract by the US Air Force to develop new variants of the company's E-7 Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) aircraft to replace America's Cold War fleet of 31 E-3 "Sentry" AWACS early warning aircraft.

The E-3 "Sentry," based on the Boeing 707, entered service in 1977 and became part of the air fleets of the United States, Britain, France, NATO, and others during the Cold War, serving as flying observation and air command centers to detect hostile aircraft, with each Sentry able to monitor air traffic over an area the size of Poland.

It was a radical idea that helped NATO avoid unpleasant surprises, but the E-3 is now obsolete and will be phased out over the next two decades. By a decision made by the US government in 2018, purchasing the undeveloped E-7 variants signals the end of the Air Force E-3 "Sentry."

The E-7 was initially developed in the 1990s as the E-7A Wedgetail for the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). The E-3's giant rotating radar dome was replaced with a fixed active electronically scanned array radar antenna that protrudes from the fuselage like a fin and contains the Northrop Grumman Multi-role Electronically Scanned Array (MESA) sensor. This is the most noticeable difference between the E-3 and the E-7.

This new radar contributes to the E-7's lighter weight than its predecessor and offers simultaneous 360-degree tracking of multiple airborne and maritime threats. Network connectivity for real-time analysis and targeting also enables flexible command and control of friendly land, sea, and air forces. In addition, the software architecture is open, allowing for rapid upgrades as technology advances.

The E-7 has a 117-foot (35-meter) wingspan, a maximum takeoff weight of 171,000 pounds (77,600 kilograms), and a range of 4,000 miles (6,500 kilometers) at a cruising speed of 530 miles per hour (853 kilometers per hour). Space is inside for two flight crew members and up to ten mission specialists.

Boeing claims that, since the E-7 is based on the 737 and is already in service with air forces worldwide, fine production lines and global service centers are in place to support the US Air Force's logistical supply line once the variants have been manufactured American specifications.

"The E-7 is a proven platform," said Stu Voboril, E-7 program vice president and general manager. "It is the only advanced aircraft capable of meeting the U.S. Air Force’s near-term Airborne Early Warning & Control requirement while enabling integration across the joint force," he added.

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