UK Facing AEW Capability Gap, Auditors Say

Credit: USAF

LONDON—The UK will face a gap of at least nine months in its airborne early warning (AEW) capability after deciding to retire its Boeing E-3 Sentry fleet by December 2022.

The UK will then have no AEW capability until September 2023 at the earliest, when the first of the new Boeing E-7 Wedgetail platforms is expected to enter service.

Details of the upcoming capability gap emerged in a report by the UK National Audit Office (NAO). It found for the third year in a row that the UK Ministry of Defense’s equipment procurement plan is unaffordable.

Auditors claim the budgetary shortfall is around £2.9 billion ($3.7 billion). But they also say the figure is “likely to be understated” and could be as high as £13 billion if all risks materialize.

The audit occurs as the government begins a review of defense as part of a wider analysis of Britain’s foreign policy. Scrutiny is focused on the UK Foreign Office, Ministry of Defense and Department for International Development. With the largest budget of the three departments, defense and its procurement system are likely to face additional review.

The ministry’s plans call for spending £183.6 billion on procurement over the next 10 years, equivalent to 42% of its budget during that period. 

But auditors note that several major commitments made in the 2015 Strategic Defense and Security Review, including plans to purchase 138 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, have not yet been budgeted. The NAO notes current plans only forecast the cost of the first 48. 

The NAO says the ministry expects to decide on the number of F-35 jets it needs when the HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier starts operational deployments in 2021.

Auditors say the decision to bring forward the retirement of the E-3s is the result of pressure on top-level budgets. On top of the decision to retire the aircraft early, the operational fleet is being reduced from four to three aircraft. This may explain why one E-3 was flown for long-term storage to the U.S. in January, as reported by Aerospace DAILY last month.

The NAO also says affordability decisions have driven the delay in the introduction of the new Protector unmanned aircraft system, based on the General Atomics MQ-9B SkyGuardian. The NAO says the delay increased the program’s cost by around £187 million, plus £50 million more for the cost of keeping the MQ-9 Reaper in service longer.

“The MoD has not made the necessary strategic decisions to address the 10-year affordability gap, and there is evidence that its continued short-term focus on living within annual budgets is increasingly affecting the armed forces’ ability to maintain and enhance the UK’s military capability,” said Gareth Davies, head of the NAO.

“The MoD needs to determine its strategic priorities so that it can develop an affordable long-term program of investment,” Davies added.

A spokesman for the defense ministry acknowledged the difficulties highlighted by the NAO, saying: “Managing these ambitious, complex programs can be challenging, but we have already achieved £7.8 billion of efficiency savings and last year secured an extra £2.2 billion for defense. The department is progressing toward managing down the legacy liability that it has inherited over the years.”

Tony Osborne

Based in London, Tony covers European defense programs. Prior to joining Aviation Week in November 2012, Tony was at Shephard Media Group where he was deputy editor for Rotorhub and Defence Helicopter magazines.