By Marina Malenic

The Air Force and Boeing [BA] are wrapping up a 62-flight testing program of modifications for the service’s E-3 Sentry battle management, command and control air platform.

Commonly referred to as AWACS (for “airborne warning and control system”), the E-3 is a modified Boeing 707/320 that provides surveillance, command and control to U.S. and allied forces.

“We’re finishing our Block 40/45 test flight program, potentially today,” Lt. Col. Anthony Elavsky, the chief of AWACS requirements, told Defense Daily in a brief telephone interview yesterday. “We’re looking at [an initial operational capability] in 2013 of five aircraft.”

The service currently has a fleet of 32 of the 30-year-old aircraft. Under the Block 40/45 program, Boeing revamped a test aircraft with new mission computing hardware and software, navigation and communications systems, as well as radar equipment.

Block 40/45 is a $2.2 billion program, with an average cost of $40 million per aircraft, according to Elavsky.

“It is, for all intents and purposes, a complete overhaul of the mission system,” he explained.

He added that commercial off-the-shelf technology “is providing improved computing to allow for better integration.”

“It’s really revolutionary–we’re finally getting a true open architecture system on board the aircraft,” he said. That open architecture will allow programmers to upgrade hardware and software regularly and establish a network for wide-band communications.

Air Force and contractor personnel have been conducting mission system flight tests at a Boeing facility in Seattle, Wash., since April.

Northrop Grumman‘s [NOC] E-10 MC2A was the intended replacement program for the aging AWACS and related systems. However, financial constraints finally killed that program last year. Instead, the Air Force decided to make do with an upgrade to the current AWACS computing system–Block 40/45.

In service with the Air Force since 1977, the E-3 is also used by the NATO, Japan, France, Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom.

NATO is in the final stages of modernizing its AWACS aircraft under the $1.32 billion Mid-Term Modernization Program.

“Our upgrade, with current technology and the system that we’re fielding, is substantially past what they’re doing,” Elavsky said regarding the relative advances in the respective technologies.

However, NATO’s upgrades are nearly complete, with the final five aircraft in its fleet of 17 currently undergoing final changes, according to prime contractor Boeing. The U.S. modernization, by contrast, is unlikely to be completed until 2022.

Meanwhile, Boeing has integrated advanced network-centric capabilities into two operational U.S. AWACS aircraft for a demonstration at Empire Challenge 2008, a joint military exercise being held July 7 through Aug. 1 in China Lake, Calif.

The modifications include the high-speed Tactical Targeting Network Technology (TTNT) system, which connects the aircraft to other assets beyond the line of sight.

Elavsky said the Pentagon is still evaluating TTNT as one possible beyond-line-of-sight solution.

“DoD’s position on it is still up in the air,” he said.