Lessons from the Australian Wedgetail aircraft program are critical to future defense industrial efforts
Take one of Washington’s closest allies, a successful and cost-effective commercial airframe, and wed them with a newly developed suite of radar, communications and electronic warfare capabilities to create a groundbreaking airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft. A marriage made in heaven? Certainly not, according to media coverage of Australia’s Wedgetail aircraft, which has focused on the program’s many difficulties in meeting deadlines and integrating its broad range of systems into a functioning platform.
Despite the delays and disputes surrounding the Wedgetail’s genesis, the program remains central to Canberra’s bid to transform the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) into a network-centric service that can make a larger mark on international coalitions. Indeed, the Wedgetail remains the central pillar of a planned aerial triad that will include high-altitude long endurance unmanned aerial aircraft and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to give Australia a qualitative edge against any adversary in Asia for the foreseeable future.
Moreover, the Wedgetail program has turned the traditional model of defense industrial cooperation on its head. Defense firms typically build weapons systems for their own militaries, with subsequent exports of a somewhat downgraded version under the foreign military sales program. In rarer cases, such as Israel’s Phalcon AEW&C aircraft, a firm may produce a platform solely for export, without planned domestic sales. The Wedgetail is a unique case in which a foreign government has entered into a direct commercial contract with an American defense firm to develop a first-of-type platform for its own use. Learning the right lessons from the Wedgetail experience will be critical for future defense industrial programs that combine foreign capital with the U.S. industrial base.
NEW MISSIONS, NEW THREATS
The Australian Defense Force (ADF) has undertaken a breakneck modernization program since 2000 in response to Canberra’s embrace of a rapidly growing number of global responsibilities and has tried to grapple with the proliferation of advanced weapons systems in the Asia Pacific. Australia, like most Western nations, cashed in on the “peace dividend” in the immediate post-Cold War period, allowing its defense materiel to age while cutting defense budgets and allowing personnel levels in the Australian Defence Force to decline. In response, the ADF has realized that it must recapitalize the force if it is to have a robust international role.
The RAAF received a warning that it might be too early to cash in its chips during operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Although Canberra made the political decision to support coalition operations, the Air Staff ultimately concluded that its fleet of F-18 Hornets and F-111 bombers did not have the communications ability to interoperate with U.S. forces. The ADF worked on enhancing its capability to interoperate through the remainder of the decade, investing in Link 16 and IIF upgrades so its fighters could effectively participate with U.S.-led coalitions in the future.
In recent years, Australia’s commitment to coalition operations has been demonstrated by its leadership and participation in such activities as the East Timorese intervention, operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, and the humanitarian response effort following the December 2004 Asian tsunami. Indeed, Canberra has attained such expertise at working with international partners that the Australian Air Attaché in Washington, Air Cdre. Graham Bentley, describes the relationship more as a matter of “seamless integration” of the ADF and U.S. forces than interoperability.
While Canberra considers its options for taking a more robust role in coalition operations abroad, the ADF has also been pressed to consider developing an AEW&C compatibility in response to the rapidly changing defense environment in the Asia-Pacific region, where the proliferation of Russian-made aircraft, such as the Sukhoi 27 and 30 “Flanker” series of fighter jets, has tipped the air power equation in the region in favor of countries that could emerge as potential future adversaries. Hundreds of these advanced fourth-generation fighters are already in use by the air forces of China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam. These aircraft outperform the early model F-18s that Australia is flying and will reportedly continue to do so after the completion of ongoing upgrades that Australia is conducting.
At the same time Australia is counting the growing number of potentially hostile fighter/attack aircraft in the region, it is also concerned by the fielding of ever larger numbers of AEW&C aircraft in regional air forces. The Defence 2000 white paper predicted that seven countries in the region other than Australia and the U.S. would be flying AEW&C aircraft by 2010, a development that could place the RAAF in serious risk if it were ever in a conflict with a power that possessed an advanced AEW&C platform when the RAAF did not.
THE AUSTRALIAN RESPONSE
Reflecting on its rapidly aging military hardware, the government of Prime Minister John Howard used the Defence 2000 white paper to announce its commitment to maintain a 3 percent annual increase in the real defense budget through 2010, a target that the government has since extended to 2016. Much of Australia’s growing defense budget has been dedicated to the RAAF, which under the Defence Capability Plan for 2006-2006 will receive more than twice as much funding than either naval or ground programs. Project Wedgetail, formally known as Project Air 5077, is a central component of this expansion effort. After a competitive bidding process, Boeing was selected as the lead contractor for the $2.7 billion project, which was initially expected to be delivered by 2006.
The Boeing Wedgetail proposal was for a modified commercial 737 airframe, the world’s most popular medium-bodied passenger plane with some 5,000 aircraft in service. The aircraft will be laid out, from the cockpit aft, with a 10-console work area that will be responsible for controlling its radar, communications and electronic warfare suites, followed by a crew rest area, and finally a cargo hold that will house the airplane’s most important spare parts, making the aircraft logistically self-sustainable.
The most distinctive — and important — aspect of the Wedgetail design is its pair of back-to-back Northrop Grumman multirole electronically scanned array (MESA) radars, which are mounted on the fuselage in a “top hat” configuration that provides 360-degree coverage of a range that is reported to exceed 400 kilometers. Designed to operate at the higher range of the electromagnetic spectrum and detect aircraft, the radar, which operates on the L-band, will be optimized to track targets at distance and will also provide some functionality in tracking maritime, though not ground, targets. The Wedgetail will also be equipped with an electronic support measure (ESM) package managed by the BAE-Australia ALR-2001 computer. The ESM system will compliment the data gathered by the active MESA radar by passively gathering radar emissions from aerial, ground and naval platforms in the region, which it can use to compile data for the ADF’s signals intelligence (SigInt) library, providing a picture of the broader disposition of forces in the area that it operates in. The Wedgetail’s ESM package will provide it a crucial SigInt role that the American E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft does not currently play, and will make the platform significantly more cost efficient relative to the U.S. practice of flying separate aircraft for SigInt collections.
The Wedgetail’s third major capability will be its communications suite, which will allow the aircraft to serve as a node for gathering, disseminating and even translating data between Australian and coalition headquarters, naval and aerial platforms, and ground forces. The key communication component of the Wedgetail will be its integration of the Link 11 and Link 16 data link systems, which are distributed among Australia’s naval and air assets, respectively, but are not interoperable. As the Wedgetail serves as a collection platform for radar and SigInt, it will also compile data gathered by Australia’s air and naval platforms in theater, integrating that data into a single operational picture and retransmitting it to Australian platforms while serving as a mobile command-and-control outpost for air operations.
Combining these three capabilities, Australian strategists aim to give the RAAF a role that will be integral to coalition operations, upgrading the force’s role from a seamlessly integrated but too often invisible member of a multinational coalition to the force multiplier that make allied air operations more effective across the board. The Wedgetail is also intended to form the center of Australia’s modernized C4ISR infrastructure, which also included Orion P-3 maritime aerial advanced warning aircraft and a fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles. As Australia deploys Joint Strike Fighter aircraft in the 2010s, it will rapidly move from being somewhat overmatched by potential adversaries to possessing the most advanced air force in the Asia-Pacific after the U.S.
AIR TRIALS AND INDUSTRY TRIBULATIONS
The Wedgetail aircraft has run into consistent development trouble, experiencing a series of delays that will set back initial deployment by almost three years, from late 2006 to early 2009. The degree of this setback was matched by its unexpectedness. After the completion of the contract with Boeing in 2001, reportage on the Wedgetail focused on the program’s steady progress, characterized by article titles in major defense and aerospace papers that the Wedgetail was “sailing through” its initial flight tests, and reassurances from program managers that testing and integration of the aircraft’s complex suite of radar, ESM and communications gear was progressing smoothly.
The first Wedgetail aircraft rolled out of Boeing’s Seattle assembly line in October 2002, followed one month later by Northrop Grumman’s MESA radar. After initial radar testing, the two were mated in October 2003, with test flights and subsequent adjustments to the “top hat” placement between May 2004 and March 2005, when the Boeing project manager declared Wedgetail “a real system flying” and announced that the high-power electromagnetic testing of the radar indicated no interference between the aircraft’s many systems. This issue is especially sensitive because the MESA operates on the L-band of the electromagnetic spectrum, which extends its functionality at long ranges but also enhances the risk of inadvertently jamming the aircraft’s communications capabilities, whose frequencies overlap.
January 2006 was supposed to be the beginning of the end for the Wedgetail’s development process, as the plane was expected to undergo final installation of the mission hardware and software, while the same modification program that the first two aircraft had undergone in the U.S. would be launched for the final four airframes at RAAF Base Amberley in Australia, a crucial transfer of technology and experience to the program’s Australian customer and industrial partners. Instead, the program’s schedule began to unravel, as the final effort to integrate the program’s many software programs and additional hardware resulted in unanticipated conflicts, gradually forcing Boeing and the Australian Ministry of Defense to accept a long delay.
When the Wedgetail program’s initial delay was announced July 5, it was delivered in the form of a stinging rebuke from incoming Australian Defense Minister Brendan Nelson, who issued a statement saying that Boeing “has let the Australian government down and let themselves down,” and that he was “very disappointed with Boeing’s performance on this project.” Although Boeing accepted responsibility for the delays, the disclosure that problems affected almost every system in the aircraft — from the radar, to the ESM, to communications, and then integrating those components when they were fully functional — shocked Canberra.
The Wedgetail program continued to take its licks through 2006 and 2007, as Boeing was forced to announce additional delays leading to an ultimate anticipated delivery date of early to mid-2009, and finally certified for operations until early 2010. Because Wedgetail is being built under a direct commercial contract, Boeing has been unable to undertake the same renegotiation process that an American defense contractor can expect with the U.S. government, and has already swallowed more than $1 billion in losses on the program already, while also facing the additional risk that Canberra will pursue the full damages guaranteed under its contract with Boeing if it remains dissatisfied with the company.
Despite these major setbacks, Boeing has adopted a series of measures in recent months to bring the Wedgetail program back up to snuff and minimize further losses. Since a new program manager and top staff were appointed, Boeing has established non-advocate review panels to monitor high-risk areas, and a series of internal “tripwires” to draw immediate attention to areas that fall behind. Maureen Dougherty, who now manages the program, has described a new approach that will “make progress with the radar in parallel to the electronic support measures, com systems and the data link” so the final capability is “much more robust, it’s much more agile with respect to our ability to react and to make more progress when upgrades are available.”
Reflecting on challenges the program has run into and the acrimony last summer, Australia’s Wedgetail program manager Air Vice Marshal Chris Deeble told AFJ that although Canberra “expects the capability to be delivered on time, Australia also expects the capability to be delivered.” He emphasized that the Department of Defence is working to guarantee that Boeing is properly incentivized to deliver the full capability promised in 2001, and is “optimistic” that the program has turned a corner since its previous difficulties. With ongoing tests to complete the upgrading and integration of the aircraft’s various capabilities, it appears to be back on schedule for delivery in 2009.
FACING THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW
There are multiple lessons from the Wedgetail experience, many of which have been obscured by the critical reporting on a tarnished program characterized by extensive, unexpected delays.
The first, most obvious lesson is the inherent challenge in managing a revolutionary procurement program when the customer is almost 8,000 miles from the lead contractor. Systems integration is the great challenge of modern defense programs, and it should be little surprise that the tyranny of distance conspired to derail the Wedgetail program from what appears in hindsight to have been an early stage. Indeed, although Boeing has received much negative press for its handling of the Wedgetail program, one of the great unanswered questions is why it took Nelson’s arrival at the Department of Defence for the program to come under critical scrutiny. Failure is usually treated as an orphan, but it appears that the insufficient risk management that characterized the Wedgetail’s early stages was exacerbated by the sheer distances involved.
The second lesson also flows from the experimental nature of the Wedgetail program, which involved conducting a direct commercial sale of a newly designed, first-of-type capability to an international customer. It appears that the program’s structure facilitated its falling through the cracks, as the Wedgetail program neither fell under Boeing’s highly successful commercial aviation side, nor could it initially benefit from the best personnel on the defense side, who typically work on major contracts for U.S. customers. Although Boeing will certainly emerge from the Wedgetail experience the wiser for its woes, it remains to be seen whether a better incentive structure will be reached for future international defense-industrial projects of this order. Failure to do so may result in reluctance on the part of American defense firms to undertake similar work in the future.
Finally, and most crucially, the “hangover” from the Wedgetail program should not obscure the fact that its culmination in the production of six Australian AEW&C aircraft, whose development costs were paid for by Canberra and that are now available for export to additional U.S. allies, will represent a significant strategic success. Despite the ongoing frustration concerning the inability of the Wedgetail to perform at its promised capability, it still stands in line to provide the technological core of Australia’s future air posture, serving as a key intelligence gatherer and combat controller, and one that both Australia’s doctrine for air combat and personnel training system will be built around. At its full potential and in combination with the Joint Strike Fighter and other aircraft, the Wedgetail will give Canberra an air power edge in the region that will be crucial to its future defense operations.
For all the frustration that has ensnared the Wedgetail program to date, it promises to be a model for improved defense-industrial cooperation in the future. Learning the right lessons can help guarantee that it will be.
Christopher Griffin is a research associate in Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute.