A possible AEW survivability solution

I did repeatedly write about the survivability issue of airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft such as AWACS, Hawkeye or Erieye.

They seem fine on paper with their greater than 300 km radar range, but supersonic sprinting fighters and low observable fighters can get into a distance from where long range air-to-air missiles have a good chance of hitting those few precious radar aircraft. The Russians (and rumoured also the Chinese) have developed dedicated long range AAMs for AEW killing. Soon-to-be exported Meteor missiles have a good range as well.
Very long range surface-to-air missiles (such as S-400's 40N6 or the USN's SM-6) can threaten and thus keep at a long distance such aircraft as well. The same problem applies to radar aircraft such as J-STARS and ASTOR.

There is an option to address these issues prior to 2025 (though not really for naval aviation), but it's very expensive:

You could take the biggest supersonic low observable aircraft in the Western arsenal, the B-1B bomber, and use it as the platform instead of commercial aircraft, some slow turboprop-driven naval aircraft or even slower helicopters.

Four (very expensive) F135 engines would give it a 38% increase in thrust over the original F101 engines. This, possibly in combination with variable air inlets would regain a Mach 2 capability, and more importantly it would likely give the platform a supercruise capability. The optimisation for low altitude operation such as the tiny canards would be removed, and the airframe would be reverted to a high altitude high speed design, albeit while retaining low radar observability.

The B-1B was designed to have a low radar cross section, particularly up front.
correct exact figures and RCS from sides etc. are not publicly known, of course
This could likely be improved a bit with radar stealth advances of the past about 35 years without prohibitive LO optimisation costs.

Conformal radars for 360° AEW functionality could be added, particularly based on the IAI EL/W-2085. The B-1B is easily large enough to incorporate these, likely with little effect on aerodynamics and with a tolerable effect on RCS.

- - - - -

The outcome would be an AEW(&C) aircraft type that could radiate, which might attract missile attacks, but frequently the emissions would cease (and another aircraft 100+ km away would radiate instead). This may break the engagement sequence because missiles with 200+ km range would need mid-course updates by datalink to find their target, particularly if it's capable of moving at supersonic speed and can only be detected by the small missile radar at short ranges because of a small RCS. The AEW aircraft would not only rapidly get away from its last triangulated position (including reducing the no escape range of the threat missiles); it would also break contact unless the opposing forces have a good sensor close enough. And this "close enough" would be much more close than with current platforms.

Essentially, this might make an AEW kill as difficult (or easy - who knows?) as it was in the 1980's again.

The costs would be extreme:
A modification of existing airframes would likely make little sense due to the substantial airframe modifications and the fact that B-1Bs are worn after 30+ years of training including low altitude training.
  • A small production run of few dozen aircraft would require to set up a production line anew, with full fixed costs. Digital plans and coding for computer-controlled shaping would need to be done.
  • The F135 engines alone would cost in excess of USD 50 million per aircraft, likely USD 60 million per aircraft if a few spare engines are purchased to improve readiness rates.
  • The redesign for Mach 2 would cost a lot and take years.
  • The systems integration and likely upgrade of the EL/W-2085 radar systems would cost a lot.
  • Add a premium on all costs and the program duration because the U.S. DoD would do it, not Israel.
Keep in mind that a single comparably simple E-767 AEW&C aircraft costs a staggering approx. USD 400 million. A B-1B  and EL/W-2085 based solution could easily cost twice as much, if not a billion in program costs/copy. Even worse; the tactic described above requires two aircraft to be on station at any time for continuous observation.
A production of 60 AEW and 20 standoff ground surveillance radar aircraft could cost nearly a hundred billion $, and the operating expenses would be regrettably high as well.

In the end, it might be worth it if it succeeds in boosting AEW survivability and thus in making AEW relevant in defensive high end air warfare, though. I doubt it would help much in regard to offensive air warfare.

An alternative would be to use a rather low-flying AEW helicopter with a much more modest range, but the ability to dive & land when a missile threat is detected or suspected. This is what the French HORIZON program (long range ground surveillance radar) did. This may be the way to go for naval forces unless tethered solutions happen to work well.



  1. Why not a bi-static solution? Stealthy wideband or supersonic emitter, B-21 receivers?

    Also never understood why that giant SDI X-band sea platform wasn't repurposed for a stand-off Cobra Dane.

    1. I see no advantages in a bi-static solution for the search role, particularly not regarding very low altitude targets.

  2. It might be better to make some of the new b21 into are. It will be a platform that is in production.

  3. I saw no indication of it being supersonic yet, and radar VLO alone would likely not suffice. Terminal guidance can use IIR as well if there's a detachable thermal protection hood.

  4. Would it not be better to design and build a supersonic executive jet from scratch that was large enough and designed from the beginning to also be a AEW and carry anti ship missiles . They would sell more private jet versions that would off set the cost of production and keep production lines open . The price of a supersonic executive jet would only be $100-150 million and a military version probably only double that . I am surprised we still don't have supersonic private jets as there is no technical reason anymore and there seems to be a demand .

    1. The ability to modify existing aircraft with additional electronics appears to be much better than the ability to develop an all-new aircraft in a timely and affordable fashion.
      An all-new aircraft project under control of a military procurement agency would take 15-20 years, and the mission creep in its design would make it uneconomical for all civilian purposes.
      A Lancer AEW aircraft might be airborne in 2025, in service prior to 2030.

      Furthermore, the business jet would need to be designed with LO, for the ability to break contact may not be given with a supersonic sprint alone. This means the aircraft would stand little chance of survival once it's in the no escape zone of a hostile fighter.