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C4iSR: Air

UK to buy second-hand 737s for Wedgetail AEW&C project

15 May 2019
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Artist's impression of Wedgetail, the platform for which the UK will buy second hand. Source: Crown Copyright

Two of the five Boeing 737NG airframes for the UK's future E-7 Wedgetail airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) project will be second-hand former airliners, according to correspondence between Defence Procurement Minister Stuart Andrew and the House of Commons Defence Committee.

Andrew also told the committee that the first two aircraft will start conversion work at Marshall Aerospace's Cambridge site in 2021 and the final aircraft will be complete in early 2026.

In October 2018, then-defence secretary Gavin Williamson announced that the UK had selected the Wedgetail, and in March 2019, he confirmed a USD1.98 billion deal with Boeing to buy five E-7 aircraft.

"Boeing has sourced two 737NG from the commercial market and secured a further three production slots on [its] Seattle production line in 2021 and 2022 to meet our needs," Andrew wrote in a letter dated 25 April and seen by Jane's on 10 May.

"The conversion of these five aircraft to the E-7 AEW&C standard will be undertaken at Marshall Aerospace's facilities in Cambridge," he said. "Boeing have significant experience of the conversion from the 737NG to E-7, having previously set up conversion facilities in three separate countries. They have already started work with Marshall Aerospace, bringing in an experienced team who were involved in the previous conversions, to ensure the lessons have been learnt and are applied."

Andrew said he anticipated the modification of each aircraft to take an average of 24 months. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) would robustly monitor the project to assess progress, he added.

The procurement minister revealed that the UK Wedgetail project is now expected to cost more than the USD1.98 billion Williamson cited because it does not include several support elements. "The initial contract principally covers the aircraft procurement and conversion," said Andrew.

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