An Australian E-7 Wedgetail aircraft on the flight line on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, April 16, 2021.

An Australian E-7 Wedgetail aircraft on the flight line on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, April 16, 2021. U.S. Air Force / Tech. Sgt. Jimmie D. Pike

Northrop gears up to triple production of E-7 radar

Air Force officials want the radar plane as soon as possible—particularly in the Indo-Pacific.

Five months ago, the U.S. Air Force expected the E-7 Wedgetail’s top-mounted radar to be a bottleneck in production of the next-gen command-and-control aircraft. Now Northrop Grumman says it has a plan to build the radars three times as quickly.

“I think Northrop Grumman can produce two a year but they need to expand capacity to get to four. There is foreign military sales interest in E-7, so we may very well be very busy,” Steven Wert, the Air Force’s program executive officer for digital services, said at the Life Cycle Industry Days conference in July.

But Northrop said production of the plane’s multirole electronically scanned array, or MESA, radar isn’t holding up the program—and that the company will be able to make six a year when it needs to.

“When you look at the contracts that we currently have today, we are supporting all of their timelines. So it's really just going all in to ensure that we're procuring material per the profile required, and looking at ensuring that we can build up to support the needs of the current contracts that we have today,” Ed Griebel, vice president of the company’s airborne surveillance business unit, said in a December interview.

In February, the Air Force ordered two test E-7s for delivery in 2027, the first of an expected 26-plane fleet. Boeing is currently completing the UK’s three-plane order, and NATO wants the first of its six E-7s delivered by 2031.  

Boeing said it will build four per year when the program gets going, but there are talks to bring that up to six, a cadence Northrop said it can match.

“If you look at all the contracts that are out there, and if everything came in at the ideal time, that results generally at a maximum rate that we need to achieve and through our infrastructure investment and our workforce, we're talking over the next few years, we'll be able to get to the required rate, which is about up to six per year,” Griebel said.

Northrop needs to build more of the structures that hold up the massive radar, called a “top hat” for its distinctive shape. Griebel said the company can do that in their buildings in Linthicum, Maryland, and also sees no reason for concern about its own suppliers.

“It's basically the same material but higher quantities and we monitor that very, very closely,” he said.

“To go from two to up to six—this is where, you know, the workforce becomes a key element of that. So we are developing and training our depth on the sensors we're building today, so that we have the depth that we can then deploy to those additional sensors we intend to build,” Griebel said. 

The Air Force has not been shy about wanting its E-7s as quickly as possible. Pentagon officials have said they need E-7s in the Indo-Pacific region to handle airborne domain awareness and to maintain air superiority as the service begins retiring its old E-3 Sentry AWACS-carrying radar planes. Lawmakers greenlighted the service’s request to divest two E-3s in this year’s annual defense policy bill. 

Congress has been pushing the service to speed up E-7 production, and has questioned the service on why it can’t be sped up when Australia has already been flying E-7s for years. 

“There's a lot of fixation on how fast we can produce the first one. And there's limitations to that, right? Boeing has to build a green aircraft and then they have to convert it to a configuration that can support the radar, and then the mission systems and then you have to test and certify air worthiness and those things. There's only so fast you can do the first one,” the Air Force’s Wert said. 

The Pentagon announced in February that Boeing was awarded a $1.2 billion contract to jump-start E-7 development. However, the contract is undefinitized, meaning the final price of the aircraft is still under negotiation. Wert couldn’t comment on price, but said, “We're working very closely with Boeing and they have actually brought on a full-time person to work affordability on the U.S. program.”