Airbus Military announces AEW&C aircraft


Airbus Military plans to fly a demonstrator airborne early warning and command (AEW&C) variant of its C295 twin turboprop transport next month. The aircraft will sport a rotodome similar to the Boeing E3 Sentry – rather than a dorsal “plank” fairing as used by the Saab Erieye.

Airbus Military head of engineering Miguel-Angel Morell Fuentes says a dummy dome was installed on an aircraft last week for flight tests. The C295 is currently available as a transport – carrying up to 66 troops, a maritime surveillance platform and as an armed maritime patrol/antisubmarine/surface warfare platform. Describing the mooted variant as an “interesting technology”, he noted the C295 “appears to be ideal also for AEW&C application”, featuring optimal flight behaviour, the longest cabin in its class and state-of-the-art avionics. It also has a wider cabin than many peers.

Fuentes said in is presentation to the Airbus Military trade media briefing last week that his engineers are “always looking for new applications”. The idea for an AEW&C variant was first mooted about a year ago and was followed by a feasibility study and a feasibility assessment. Both were successfully completed, leading to work on aircraft systems modifications, rotodome aerodynamic, structural and system integration with the C295 and computational fluid dynamics and wind-tunnel testing in the Netherlands.

A company-owned C295 was next converted to a “100% representative AEW test-bed” at the business’ facility in Sevilla, Spain. Fuentes added flight flight will be followed by an extensive three-month flight test campaign. Expected time on station could be as long as seven or eight hours and aerial refuelling would be available. A decision will then be made on the way forward. To date, the work has been entirely company funded, but Fuentes added the company was open to sign a contract with a lead customer.

Trade journalists attending the media briefing were somewhat surprised by the announcement and questioned whether there was space in a somewhat crowded market for the aspirant new entrant. Fuentes believed there is advantage for operators who use a common fleet of aircraft for military transport, maritime patrol and AEW&C as it could provide them “with important benefits and savings, and [lower] operating costs”.

Fuentes could not comment on the capability of a radar fit, as none have as yet been contemplated. The rotodome is some 6m in diameter, about two thirds the size of the E3 radome (9m) and just slightly smaller than that fitted to the E2 Hawkeye (7m). Fuentes continued the company also believes that rotodomes are superior to longtitudinal “planks” because they provide 360 degree coverage while the Erieye-type arrays only provide coverage to the sides, with blind spots forward and aft of the aircraft, requiring the aircraft to fly “racetrack” courses to achieve all-round vision.

South Africa in 2008 had a brief look at the Swedish Erieye mounted on a Brazilian Embraer as a solution to help safeguard the 2009 soccer Confederations Cup and the 2010 World Cup. But in November 2008 SA Air Force chief Lieutenant General Carlo Gagiano said the system was too expensive for the country. “Now we`re talking real money,” says Gagiano. “We don`t have the capacity. There`s no money in the defence budget for Erieye. From an acquisition point of view, I don`t see it, although I would like it, but the financial realities won`t allow it.”

But that may change. South Africa’s recently approved – but as yet unpublished – maritime security strategy includes plans to cover the country’s entire exclusive economic zone (EEZ) with “some form of sensor, or combination of sensors that will produce the most optimal coverage”, Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Lindiwe Sisulu last week said in answer to a parliamentary question by Democratic Alliance MP SP Kopane. “It is obvious that such an integrated system will require the cooperation of many stakeholders and will benefit the RSA in order to ensure that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of our maritime zones remain intact,” Sisulu said. “Such an integrated system forms part of the deliberations on a maritime security strategy for the RSA.” She did not elaborate, but a reading of the answer suggests that pricey as it may be, an AEW&C aircraft could be part of the solution.

Saab Surveillance Systems director Peter Hultin in May 2008 told defenceWeb the Erieye`s software-driven Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar gave users the ability to comprehensively and simultaneously survey the air, sea surface and ground environment in a radius of up to 450km around the aircraft to which it was fitted – or about 450 000 square kiliometers. By contrast, ground radar could perhaps scan the near-ground environment to a range of about 50km, taking into account the curvature of the earth. Using Doppler radar, Erieye could accurately track hovering helicopters flying nap-of-the-earth or “rubber duck” type boats and jetskis in the surf at ranges of several hundred kilometres. This was a valuable feature when employing Erieye in the search-and rescue role or for detecting piracy or illegal fishing activities, he added.

Hultin pointed out that a single aircraft could monitor approximately a quarter of SA`s lowest airspace at any given time, versus a 1/200th for ground radar. “Two aircraft, one based in Gauteng and the other in the Cape, can observe almost all of SA in as fast as half an hour: 10 minutes to warn the systems and take off, and 20 to reach orbit,” he adds.

In addition, an AEW&C platform can complement or supplement existing ground radar and even replace ground-based air traffic control in case of natural calamity, power outage or terrorist attack.

The platform is also ideal to help impose economic and environmental exclusion zones around nature and fishery reserves for example. Similarly, it can assist in enforcing no-fly zones in peacekeeping operations, around VIP meetings such as those of the G8, critical infrastructure such as nuclear plants or major events, typified by the 2010 FIFA Soccer World Cup.