The United Kingdom’s deal to buy three, rather than the previously planned five Boeing E-7A Wedgetail airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft for the Royal Air Force “represents extremely poor value for money” and “an absolute folly.” Those are among the conclusions of a report published today by the U.K. Defense Committee, a body that examines Ministry of Defense (MoD) expenditure, administration, and policy on behalf of the British parliament.
At the center of the report’s criticism of the procurement is the fact that, as a result of a contract stipulation, the MoD is having to pay for all five Northrop Grumman Multi-role Electronically Scanned Array (MESA) radars, even though only three aircraft — which will be designated Wedgetail AEW1 in RAF service — are being acquired. The report assesses that the total cost of the three-aircraft order will be $2.5 billion, compared to the $2.7 billion agreed for five of the radar planes.
“Even basic arithmetic would suggest that ordering three E-7s rather than five (at some 90 [percent] of the original acquisition cost) represents extremely poor value for money,” the report contends.
The E-7 procurement is one of three major defense deals dealt with by the report, which comes at the end of a six-month inquiry. The Type 26 anti-submarine warfare frigate for the Royal Navy and the Ajax armored fighting vehicle for the British Army also come in for criticism. Worryingly, the overall conclusion is that the U.K.’s defense procurement system is “broken” and that “multiple, successive reviews have not yet fixed it.”
The report suggests that the tiny fleet will be a “prize target” for aggressors. Not only will the AEW&C aircraft play a critical role in any high-end air campaign, but also planes of this type are increasingly under threat from long-range air defenses and are far from survivable in any kind of contested airspace.
The same report also warns that the initial operating capability for the RAF E-7s could be delayed by a further year to 2025. This is especially concerning considering that the RAF retired its previous E-3D Sentry AEW1 radar planes in 2021, leaving a massive capability gap.
Other problems are dogging the U.K.’s plans to field the E-7, the report explains, including the failure of Boeing and the British procurement arm, Defense Equipment and Support (DE&S), to agree on an in-service support contract. The report says that such a contract “should already have been successfully finalized long ago.”
So procurement can’t argue that although the savings in initial procurement are minimal, the savings on the through life costs will be huge – because it has no idea what the through life costs of the platform are!