A $368 million EMD (Engineering Manufacturing and Development) Defense contract with Boeing will finally see both NATO and USAF fleets of E3-A/B/C Sentry Airborne Warning And Control Systems (AWACS) retrofitted with advanced digital flight decks. The 32 E-3s aircraft in the US Air Force inventory along with the 16 aircraft operated by NATO, all delivered between 1977 and 1985 have been some of the most recognized military derivatives of the legendary Boeing 707-320B designed in the 1950’s. Despite continuous upgrades to the AWACS battle management/radar processing systems,enhancing the rotating dome-mounted AN/APY-2 radar performance under the current Block 40/45 configuration, the E-3 Sentry have mostly retained obsolescent analog cockpit flight instruments. The upgrade works on the aircraft that are scheduled to take place between 2013 and 2015 at Boeing Seattle facility will finally allow the AWACS fleet to operate without restriction in crowded airspace where precision navigation and minimum/reduced separation standards between aircraft are in effects under the International Civil Aviation Organization rulings.
The new state-of-the-art digital flight deck layout proposed by Boeing consists of 5 main Multi-Function glass Displays integrating an open architecture originating from the Boeing 737NG program. Boeing will rely on proven expertise and materials from Rockwell Collins for the flight management system suite (air-data and flight-management computers) as well as Telephonics of New York, Thales of Belgium, EMS of Canada and Raytheon of Maryland. Once the new flight systems are operational alongside the very recent Block 40/45 radar processing/battle management configuration upgrade, the E-3 Sentry fleet would have secured the critical uninterrupted sourcing of new replacement parts for at least the next 20 years.
In comparison, various similar programs have already been successfully undertaken on other high value aerial assets whose strategic and operational status remain critical to the US combat posture.
In the case of the 16-aircraft strong Boeing E-6B Mercury fleet (another Boeing 707-320B derivatives) delivered to the US Navy between 1989 and 1992, a cockpit upgrade based on the 737-700 has been effectively implemented between 1999 and 2003. Fulfilling a strategic communication and command role for the Navy’s Strategic Communications Wing 1, the E-6B Mercury cockpit inherited from the Boeing 707-320B offered only marginal improvements over its E-3 Sentry ersatz. In the E-6B case, the $123 million flight deck upgrade program saw 6 new flat-panel modern Multi-Function Displays replace more than 100 analog cockpit instruments.
A more recent cockpit upgrade program for the 4 Boeing E4-B National Airborne Operations Center delivered in 1973 to the US Air Force 55th Wing was announced June 7th 2011. Again 737NG avionics systems will be fitted to that 747-200-based platform. Under the program, the E-4B aircraft will integrate new core CNS/ATM (Communication Navigation Surveillance/Air Traffic Management) systems to 737NG-inspired Multi-Function Displays glass deck management interface.
In all, upgrades of legacy 70’s or 80’s Boeing military aircraft cockpits have continuously relied on open architecture avionics program derived from already successful implementations on passenger Boeing 737NG and 777 aircraft. In each case aging and/or out-of-production flight systems have compounded limited operational capabilities to poor maintainability due to the growing difficulties of sourcing replacement parts.
Another successful case saw Off-The-Shelf components sourced from Smiths Industries used to upgrade 59 USAF KC-10 Tanker. That retrofit showcased a combination of PowerPC-based CPU architecture solution with a VMEBus controller in a program began in 2002. This approach has permitted the potent 1970’s DC-10-based platform to acquire more operational flexibility.