Enter the DRAGON – NATO & USA Upgrading E-3 AWACS Cockpits
The USA and NATO have invested billions in their E-3 AWACS(Airborne early Warning And Control System) radar planes, whose rotating radar and on-board computers provide a complete aerial picture in a radius that encompasses hundreds of thousands of square miles. Their role as surveillance planes, command and control centers, and communications relays is invaluable – if you can fly them.
The aircraft are based on Boeing’s 707-320B jetliners, and deliveries began in 1977. Over the years, their radars and command centers have received improvements, but it’s getting harder to find parts for their pilot flight deck avionics, and international regulations for civil airspace are changing. The USAF’s 707-based KC-135 aerial tankers have had to change, in order to adapt. Now it’s the E-3s’ turn, and NATO’s pooled fleet has joined the program. Enter… the DRAGON.
Enter the DRAGON
As the name DRAGON (Diminishing Manufacturing Sources Replacement of Avionics for Global Operations and Navigation) suggests, one of the problems the AWACS fleets are having is finding parts for their old avionics. Both the USA (Block 40-45) and NATO (Mid-Term Modernisation) have implemented billion-dollar upgrade programs for radar and mission systems over the last decade, but that doesn’t mean much if you can’t fly the plane. New ICAO standards as of 2015 add another layer of urgency, in order to keep the fleet flying within international civil airspace.
The upgraded E-3 flight deck will feature commercial off-the-shelf gear, with Rockwell Collins supplying the flight management system suite, including glass displays and air-data and flight-management computers. Other suppliers include Telephonics in NY, Raytheon in MD, Thales in Belgium, and EMS in Canada. Many traditional gauges and dials will be removed, to make way for 5 main glass (digital screen, not analog) displays that offer the pilot and co-pilot user-friendly and customizable engine, navigation and radar data.
Other new equipment will include an Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System, a new weather radar with predictive wind shear, and an Engine Instrument and Crew Alert System for improved safety-of-flight. A Mode-5 Identification Friend or Foe transponder will assist with military identification, and air traffic control datalinks will help ensure that the upgraded aircraft meet current and future requirements for flight in international airspace.
The upgrade will reduce the flight deck crew from 4 people to 3, with the removal of the previous navigator position.
A Preliminary Design Review is scheduled for September 2012, to be followed by a critical design review a few months later. Installation is scheduled to begin on NATO’s NE-3A AWACS aircraft at a Boeing facility in Seattle, WA during Q3 2013. Modification of the USAF’s E-3C AWACS begins in 2014, and both planes will be complete by the end of 2015. Production contracts for the remaining 46 E-3 aircraft will be awarded later, with production scheduled to start in 2016 after an initial flight-test program.
Contracts & Key Events
Aug 5/13: Canada. Canada’s 2011 withdrawal from the long-standing NE-3A program will have industrial consequences. The Canadian Press reports that Between 1992 – 2010, Canada contributed C$ 161 million toward level maintenance, but Canadian companies received C$ 180 million in service contracts, and C$ 146 million of upgrade work. “With the Canadian military no longer part of the sharing arrangement, those companies will be shut out of further bidding and not allowed to renew their existing contracts.” Sources: CP, “Decision to withdraw from NATO surveillance programs to cost Cda contracts”.
May 23/12: Final EMD contract. Boeing announces a $368 million Engineering, Manufacturing and Development (EMD) contract from the USAF’s Electronic Systems Center at Hanscom AFB, MD. This is Phase 2 of the DRAGON program to design a modern flight deck and avionics for 31 USAF E-3C and 17 NATO NE-3A Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft.
Under the finalized EMD contract, Boeing will integrate new and existing avionics and communications systems; develop a design to install the new equipment; upgrade 1 example aircraft for each AWACS fleet; flight-test the new systems; develop logistics support data; and train flight crews and maintenance personnel. Boeing | USAF.
March 2012: Initial DRAGON phase, including subsystem requirements reviews, is complete. Source.
Early 2012: The USAF’s Electronic Systems Center at Hanscom Air Force Base, MA issues an unfinalized, not-to-exceed $393 million contract for DRAGON’s EMD phase.
That figure made DRAGON one of the largest unfinalized contracts in the USAF at the time. On the other hand, contracting officer Jill Sentementes says that if they waited any longer, they might not have been able to meet NATO’s December 2018 deadline, and NATO could have pulled out. That would have increased the USAF’s costs, so they issued the “undefinitized contract action” to keep NATO in the program. A final contract was eventually negotiated, for slightly less money. Source.
Summer 2010: NATO and the USAF execute an international agreement to share development costs on an avionics upgrade for their fleet of 48 total E-3 aircraft. Under the multilateral memorandum of understanding with NAPMO [NAEW&C Programme Management Organisation], a hard stop date of December 2018 was established to complete the DRAGON (Diminishing Manufacturing Sources Replacement of Avionics for Global Operations and Navigation) program’s Engineering & Manufacturing Development. Source.