An E-7A Wedgetail Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft. (Royal Australian Air Force/Cpl. Melina Young)

DUBAI: Boeing expects the US Air Force to announce plans to purchase its E-7 Wedgetail airborne early warning and control plane in 2022, a Boeing defense executive said Saturday, ramping up speculation that the service could include money for the aircraft in its next budget. 

“I’m very confident that the Air Force is choosing the E-7 to replace its E-3 fleet,” Mike Manazir, Boeing’s vice president for defense business development, said during a news conference ahead of the Dubai Airshow.

How confident?

“I believe they’ll be announcing sometime in 2022 that they’re going to move forward on the E-7,” Manazir said. “I think we’re going to be able to capitalize with all of our allies and bring that great capability to the United States Air Force.” 

The Air Force is considering buying the E-7 Wedgetail — a Boeing 737 derivative that has been purchased by Australia and the United Kingdom — to replace its fleet of 31 E-3 Sentry airborne warning and control system planes, colloquially known as AWACS. 

The AWACS planes date back as far as the 1970s, and obsolete parts have driven up sustainment costs while leaving the aircraft with a dismal 40 percent availability. 

As a result, some senior Air Force officials — including Air Combat Command head Gen. Mark Kelly and Air Force Pacific Command head Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach — have come out as strong supporters of replacing AWACS with the Wedgetail as soon as the budget allows. 

The Air Force’s top two leaders, Secretary Frank Kendall and Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown, have also indicated their interest in the Wedgetail, although neither official has been willing to publicly commit the service to a buy ahead of the fiscal year 2023 budget release early next year.

There are signs that the service may be moving closer to an acquisition strategy. In October, the Air Force indicated it would award Boeing a sole-source contract to perform analysis related to the E-7 and determine what additional work the baseline design would need to be able to support US-specific requirements. 

Boeing continues to be in “close discussions” with the Air Force on a potential Wedgetail sale, Manazir said.

While Boeing’s commercial side remains challenged by the fallout of the 737 Max debacle and the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the aerospace industry, Manazir said Boeing anticipates a “stable, predictable, strong defense environment.”

The company estimates a $2.6 trillion defense outlook over the next decade, even with countries continuing to spend on pandemic response measures, Manazir said. 

A major portion of that stems from sales to the Middle East. Over the next five years, Boeing projects it could sell as much as $34 billion worth of defense and space products to Gulf customers, spread out among more than 100 sales campaigns.

Manazir declined to name specific competitions that comprise that estimated figure or name potential customers. However, he pointed to Boeing’s fighter portfolio, its AH-64 Apache attack helicopter, CH-47 Chinook cargo helicopter, KC-46 tanker and small satellite offerings as the major source of interest in the region.

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