The U.S. Air Force is investigating if and how it may accelerate the planned procurement of 15 Boeing [BA] E-7 Wedgetails as a partial replacement for the service’s 31 E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft by Boeing.

“We are exploring options to try to do that [acceleration],” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told the Senate Armed Services Committee on May 3 in response to a question from SASC Chariman Jack Reed (D-R.I.) during a May 3 hearing on the service’s fiscal 2023 budget request. “It’s not clear that there are opportunities, but we are investigating them. The timeline is driven by the fact that we’re buying new commercial airplanes and then modifying them to be the surveillance platforms that we want.”

Designed for the Royal Australian Air Force, the Wedgetail is a Boeing 737-700 modified for airborne early warning and control. The aircraft has advanced Multi-Role Electronically Scanned Array (MESA) radar, and 10 mission crew consoles to track airborne and maritime targets simultaneously. The Republic of Korea, Turkey, and the United Kingdom have also picked the E-7A for their militaries.

The Royal Air Force is to field its first E-7 next year after having selected the Wedgetail in 2019.

“Getting the [737-700] airplanes is a two-year process, and then modifying them is another two-year process,” Kendall testified on May 3. “So, there are things that we could do, however, to maybe get access to aircraft earlier, one way or another. There are things we might be able to do to reduce risk and to make sure we can make that schedule. I’d be happy to work with the committee on ideas to move forward at a quicker pace. That’s something we all want.”

The Air Force E-7 contract award is planned in fiscal year 2023 with $227 million in research and development funding for the delivery of a prototype E-7 in fiscal 2027 (Defense Daily, Apr. 26). A draft schedule calls for a second prototype E-7 award in fiscal 2024 and a production decision in fiscal 2025, the Air Force has said.

“All of us agree we need to get the E-7 as fast as possible for the high-end fight,” Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the SASC ranking member, said during the May 3 SASC hearing. Of the 31 AWACS, 27 belong to the 552nd Air Control Wing at Tinker AFB, Okla.

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 the Wedgetail had supported operations in Iraq and Syria.

In addition to improved air moving target indication (AMTI) that the Air Force expects with the E-7, in the longer term the Department of the Air Force may conduct AMTI from space as a hedge against the ease with which advanced adversaries, like China, may be able, at long distances, to destroy large surveillance aircraft.