It's welcome Wedgetails and farewell workhorses

It's taken 20 years and well over $3 billion, but the RAAF finally has six of the best airborne warning and control aircraft money can buy.

On the same day the service farewelled two of its veteran C-130 Hercules load carriers in Sydney, Defence Materiel Minister Jason Clare and Chief of Airforce Air Vice-Marshal Geoff Brown announced in Canberra the Wedgetail has finally reached initial operating capability.

The declaration is expected to end the program's four-year sojourn on the defence minister's ''projects of concern list'', currently the subject of a high-level conference in Canberra.

The crews who fly and run the Wedgetail, which looks for all the world like a 737 passenger jet from either Mad Max or Pimp My Ride, are already in love with it.

''If ET wanted to arrange his pick-up this plane would be a good place to start,'' Squadron Leader Simon Wildermuth said during a flying visit to Canberra's RAAF Fairbairn.


A part of the Wedgetail program since 2006, he was on the Australian test team at Boeing in Seattle.

While he would not be drawn on the plane's ability to spot wooden fishing boats off Australia's north western shores, Squadron Leader Wildermuth said the phased array radar did have a surface search mode.

The planes have a remarkable range of surveillance, communications and data processing capabilities that allow them to network with ships at sea, other aircraft and ground forces in peace and war.

''The job is to compile the surveillance picture, get the information out and provide a management (command and control) function,'' he said.

Or, in the words of Mr Clare: ''Wedgetail is the big brain in the battlespace. It knows more about what is going on in a war zone than anything else.''

Conceived in the early 1990s, signed-off on in 1997 and with a total budget of $3.859 billion, the six Wedgetails are a new capability for the ADF.

Despite well-documented teething problems which led to the primary contractor, Boeing Defence, Space and Security, paying Australia compensation for delivery delays and radar performance shortfalls, Wedgetail is said to set a new benchmark for airborne early warning and control systems.

Air Vice-Marshall Brown said the RAAF plane that had taken part in the RimPac joint military exercise earlier this year mightily impressed the US Navy.

''The commander of the USS Nimitz (America's 110,000 tonne, 333- metre-long, multi-billion dollar aircraft carrier) said it was the best airborne early warning system he had ever had,'' the Chief of Air Force said.

Able to fly 6482 kilometres on the fuel in their tanks, the planes have an air-to-air refuelling capability that allows them to stay aloft for up to 18 hours.

A comfortable crew lounge, complete with ensuite toilet and a kitchenette, allows for the carrying of a relief crew on such long missions. .

Wedgetail's sensors can cover 400,000 square kilometres in a single ''look''. In the course of a 10-hour flight one can search four million square kilometres of land, sea or air.