Northrop Grumman [NOC] said on March 20 that it will begin producing the company’s Multi-role Electronically Scanned Array (MESA) sensor for the U.S. Air Force E-7A Wedgetail by Boeing [BA].

The Air Force’s fiscal 2024 budget includes $681 million for rapid prototyping of two Wedgetails under Middle Tier Acquisition authority. The service said that the cost estimate for the Middle Tier Acqusition effort for the E-7A is $2.7 billlion.

The Wedgetail rapid prototyping “consists of completing end items and potential modification components for up to two aircraft to support test and evaluation; development efforts to ensure compliance with U.S. cyber security and program protection standards; development efforts to ensure navigation and communication systems comply with GPS M-Code and narrowband SATCOM mandates; design and build-out of contractor and government System Integration Laboratories supporting development, integration, and test activities, and provide analysis and products supporting future requirements and airworthiness certification,” per the Air Force’s fiscal 2024 budget.

The Wedgetail is to replace at least 15 of the Air Force’s 31 E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) planes, also built by Boeing. The Air Force

wants to retire 18 AWACS in fiscal 2024 (Defense Daily, March 13).

“As part of the E-7 weapons system, the combat proven MESA sensor will provide critical long range sensing, detection and identification in challenging environments equipping the U.S. Air Force with simultaneous air and maritime sensing capabilities, critical early warning and air battle management capabilities,” Northrop Grumman said in a March 20 statement announcing the MESA production.

“MESA allows operators to simultaneously focus on priority missions, rapidly revisit targets with increased accuracy and pass relevant information to enable timely Battle Management Command and Control decisions,” the company said. “MESA is on an active production line to address global threats in the modern-day battlespace and evolve to meet future mission requirements.”

Designed for the Royal Australian Air Force, the Wedgetail is a Boeing 737-700 modified for airborne early warning and control. Korea and Turkey also operate the plane, and the Royal Air Force is to field it. The aircraft has 10 mission crew consoles to track airborne and maritime targets simultaneously.

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall has said that acquiring the 737-700s for military use normally requires two years, while modifying them for Air Force air moving target indication requires another two years.

The Air Force has said that it wants the delivery of a prototype E-7A in fiscal 2027 and that it will make a production decision in fiscal 2025.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown, who served as the Combined Forces Air Component Commander for Operation Inherent Resolve in 2015 and 2016, has said that Wedgetail supported operations in Iraq and Syria.

The Air Force said last month that it had awarded Boeing a $1.2 billion research and development contract to begin rapid prototyping of the two E-7As (Defense Daily, Feb. 28).