Britain’s E-3D Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) is based on Boeing’s 707 family, and its ability to see and direct air operations within hundreds of miles provides vital strategic support. Since its introduction in 1992, the RAF’s fleet of 7 E-3s has been used in every major UK military operation, including Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya.
That availability depends on effective maintenance, and the UK MoD has a new approach. It’s meant to give them more flyable planes, while costing less money. The new Sentry Whole Life Support Program (WLSP) began in August 2005, when Northrop Grumman won a 20-year, GBP 665 million (then $1.2 billion) contract. Under that contract, NGC’s team is providing aircraft maintenance and design-engineering support services through 2025, in order to improve availability and reduce overall ownership costs. As is typical of recent British contracts, the government has chosen a public-private partnership founded on an unusual military combination: fixed base costs, and guaranteed time in-service percentages for the planes.
The Contract & Industry Team
Northrop Grumman was selected as the Preferred Bidder by the UK Ministry of Defence in July 2004, and deal was concluded just over a year later, in August 2005.
The contract is a fixed-price contract for the first 5 years, and the remaining 15 years of the contract are a target-cost incentive-fee structure that shares any savings below the targeted cost. The contract is fully funded for the entire 20-year term, and when it was signed, the participants believed that the Sentry Whole Life Support Programme would reduce the cost of supporting Britain’s E-3s by 12-20% over its 20-year run.
There was some basis for that optimism, as the BAE Systems CS&S’ GBP 75 million NISC (Nimrod Integrated Support Contract), availability of the Nimrod MR2 fleet was up by 40%, while support costs were down by 8%. The Minister for Defence Procurement at the time, Lord Drayson, said that:
“Effectively the new contract will halve the number of aircraft in the support hangar… This contract is also good news for the British taxpayer as it will reduce the cost of supporting Sentry by over 12% – saving GBP 90 million – whilst creating over 50 jobs here in Lincolnshire.”
These kinds of contracts need a close partnership between the Ministry of Defence and the industry team, especially for an essential platform like the E-3, which ranges far and wide.
Most of the jobs supported will be at Northrop Grumman, but not all. This innovative fleet availability contract makes Northrop Grumman responsible for all aircraft scheduled maintenance including the provision of spares world-wide, design authority services and management of the aircraft structural integrity work, technical publications and a training service for all Sentry maintenance personnel. Northrop Grumman also provides the radar and in-service support for the E-3D’s radar, and is the systems integrator for the replacement mission system.
To accomplish these goals, and meet mission targets, NGC is drawing on its experience with the US Air Force’s Total System Support Responsibility Program for their 707-based E-8C Joint STARS ground surveillance aircraft’s . NGC’s Integrated Systems sector has engineering-support responsibility and design authority for the Sentry Whole Life Support Programme. Their Electronic Systems sector will provide radar expertise, while their Space Technology sector contributes sophisticated, interactive, electronic technical manuals and support.
British companies BAE Systems and FR Aviation in Bournemouth, plus the UK division of AAR Corp. based in Mitcham, will operate as sub-contractors, and create over 50 jobs based at RAF Waddington.
BAE Systems share of the total contract is expected to be worth close to GBP 100 million (USD $178.7 million) over the life of the program. Their role will be to provide depth maintenance, ground maintenance training and on-line technical information. Within the contract, BAE Systems is also responsible for the construction of a new hangar annex within the grounds of RAF Waddington, which is being built to co-locate the 150 person service team.
BAE Systems Customer Solutions & Support (CS&S) military air business will be applying the experience from their Nimrod MR2 maritime surveillance aircraft and VC-10 transport/tanker integrated support contracts. Technical information will be delivered through the CS&S Integrated Asset Management (IAM) service, which is also being used for Nimrod MR2 and Tornado fighter support and upgrade contracts. The IAM service uses CS&S’s trilogiView technical browser, which has already been chosen for 26 other UK MOD programmes, and by Lockheed Martin for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
FR Aviation Services, a subsidiary of Cobham plc’s Flight Operations and Services Group, will be the maintenance provider on E-3D under a partnering agreement with CS&S. This latter agreement is based on the relationship that FR Aviation Services and CS&S developed while supporting the Nimrod fleet at RAF Kinloss.
August 25/22: Chile The Chilean Air Force has inducted into service two Boeing E-3D Sentry airborne early warning Mk 1 (AEW1) aircraft from the UK Royal Air Force. The two operational Airborne Warning And Control System (AWACS) aircraft were acquired along with a third aircraft to be used for spares, earlier in 2022.
May 2/14: IFF. Northrop Grumman announces that they’ve added Mode S to the E-3D fleet’s Identification Friend or Foe system, as part of the WSLP (q.v. Nov 12/10). Mode S is a civil signal that assigns each plane its own individual “squawk”. The ICAO has certain requirements for flying in civil airspace (a.k.a. “controlled airspace”), and Northrop Grumman had to figure out how to improve the onboard avionics without a complete mission computer replacement. It took a little while, but it’s done now. Sources: NGC, “Northrop Grumman Delivers Mode S Upgrade for the UK’s Sentry E-3D AWACS Mission System”.
June 2/13: Avionics. Northrop Grumman announces a 3-year, $17 million contract to design, develop, integrate, test and support a Fuel Quantity Indicator System (FQIS) on the RAF’s E-3Ds, as a task within the WLSP umbrella contract. Group Capt. Adam Northcote-Wright describes this as “a significant safety enhancement,” and the release reads like a new system. That’s not the case. We talked to Northrop Grumman about this, and they confirmed that this is an upgrade to existing fuel gauge systems.
Work will be carried out at RAF Waddington, UK, as well as at Northrop Grumman’s US facilities in Herndon, VA, and Melbourne, FL. NGC.
April 25/12: Oked. All of Britain’s E-3Ds are cleared to fly again. Presumably, the structural cracks were repaired, and no others were found. Defence Management.
April 19/12: Cracked up. The RAF has suspended E-3D flights unless they’re essential, after technicians found cracks in 2 planes where the structure supports the rotating radar. Technically, this only involves “non-operational routine flying,” and the rest of the fleet appears to be free of the fault. Caution is best when dealing with old planes, however, and there’s no planned date yet for resumption of routine flying. Conversations with Northrop Grumman are surely part of those decisions. Defence Management | Flight International | The Sun.
Partial flight suspension
Feb 21/12: Repaired in USA. Northrop Grumman finishes repairs to a U.K. E-3D’s cracked wing spar, which was fixed in the USA at the company’s Lake Charles Maintenance and Modification Center. That’s a first for the UK E-3 fleet, but that facility had a lot of experience with similar issues among the USA’s E-8Cs, and delivered the fix ahead of schedule. Northrop Grumman.
Nov 12/10: IFF upgrade. Northrop Grumman announces a 3-year, $64 million contract modification to design and develop the Mode S upgrade to the identification friend or foe interrogator system for the Royal Air Force’s Sentry E-3D AWACs aircraft. The contract modification was awarded under Northrop Grumman’s Sentry E-3D Whole Life Support Programme. Northrop Grumman said that this is the largest modification it has carried out to date for the Sentry aircraft fleet.
The work will be performed at RAF Waddington, UK, as well as at Northrop Grumman’s facilities in Herndon, VA; Warner Robins, GA; and Melbourne, FL.
Sept 16/09: Tough fix. The E-2D damaged in a December 2007 accident is ready to return to the fleet – but the GBP 3.5 million repair wasn’t easy. Keith Monslow, the Joint Sentry Support team’s operations manager, says in the UK MoD’s Desider article:
“It was the worst possible place to strike the aircraft – in the fuel gallery. The whole area was covered in fuel, which soaked right the way through to the lower lobe, contaminating the electrics. Opening up the aircraft to inspect the damage just made it worse. Fuel covered all the electrical areas. And some of the items needed in the repair aren’t even made any more so we knew we would be hunting all over the world for places to fabricate them.”
Sentry ZH106 required complete gutting of its electrical systems, 25 miles/ 40 km of new cabling, and around 2,200 new parts, all of which had to be performed with very careful attention to the aircraft’s balance as items were inserted and removed. There was also a bit of help from a nearby earthquake, which actually solved an ongoing problem with the aircraft. UK MoD.
Oct 22/08: ADRS update. Northrop Grumman announces a 3-year, $16 million contract modification to develop and install a replacement accident data recording system (ADRS) for the Sentry E-3D AWACS aircraft based at RAF Waddington. The contract modification was awarded under the company’s Sentry E-3D Whole Life Support Programme. The company will remove the existing ADRS and replace it with a solid state ADRS and will update the aircraft and training manuals and perform overall management and system engineering for the new ADRS. The ADRS includes a new aircraft data and cockpit voice recording unit, a backup cockpit voice recording unit and an emergency locator transmitter unit for each aircraft. In addition, an accident investigation kit and ground replay stations will be provided. T
he work will be carried out at RAF Waddington, UK, as well as at Northrop Grumman’s facilities in Herndon, VA; Warner Robins, GA; and Melbourne, FL.
Aug 1/08: Flight International reports that the Royal Air Force has decided against mothballing 2 of its 7 E-3D Sentry AWACS planes, and will instead look to cut costs and hours flown by reducing the number of aircrews assigned to the type. The RAF reportedly decided that mothballing the aircraft was a more expensive option in the long run.
The UK MoD is also considering an upgrade to the aircrafts’ computers, displays, and mission system, using open-architecture electronics bought off the shelf. The upgrades would be an additional budget item, but one of the ancillary benefits would be slightly lower through-life support costs.
Dec 21/07: Windy! So, what happens when unanticipated repair expenses hit the fleet? A pair of E-3Ds were apparently damaged when ground equipment items were not sufficiently secured, and high winds reportedly sent them crashing into an E-3D on the tarmac. A second aircraft reportedly received a glancing blow.
Now Northrop Grumman Corporation has announced a contract from the UK Ministry of Defence’s Sentry Integrated Project Team for the repairs. The NGC release refers to a contract issued under the existing Sentry E-3D Whole Life Support Programme (WLSP), though the contract itself sounds like a contract modification within the existing program. The repair will involve the replacement of 4 aircraft frame structural elements, which were crushed, and a major aircraft skin. In addition, a fuel system gallery and main electrical distribution panel were damaged.
“[Northrop Grumman’s team] will deliver to challenging time, performance and cost targets, with the aircraft due to be returned to service with the RAF in November 2008… The structural aspects of the repair and the electrical elements represent a considerable challenge, primarily due to the lack of availability of structural and other components that will necessitate significant manufacturing effort.”
Aug 11/05: Contract. The GBP 665 million deal is announced. It’s a fixed-price contract for the first 5 years, and the remaining 15 years of the contract are a target-cost incentive-fee structure that shares any savings below the targeted cost. The contract is fully funded for the entire 20-year term, and when it was signed, the participants believed that the Sentry Whole Life Support Programme would reduce the cost of supporting Britain’s E-3s by 12-20% over its 20-year run. UK’s Defence Logistics Organisation | Northrop Grumman | BAE Systems.