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British fixed wing airborne early warning aircraft

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Fairey Gannet AEW.3

Procured in 1959 as a replacement for Douglas Skyraider AEW aircraft, the Gannet was equipped with the same AN/APS-20 radar. When the Royal Navy’s fixed-wing carrier force was drawing-down many Gannets donated their radars and much of their electronic equipment to the RAF’s Shackelton AEW.3 (q.v). In 1985 seven Gannet AEW.3s survived, although only five of those were in the UK. Enough spare parts survived to get three of the five UK based aircraft operational (the US based aircraft arrived home in 1986), with the remaining two serving as a source of spare parts. Operated by E Flight of 849 NAS, the small force of Gannets provided AEW cover in the southwest approaches, operating from RNAS Culdrose, until 1990, when a shortage of spare parts forced the navy to ground the small fleet, Sea King AEW.2s (q.v) replacing them in the few month before the Armistice.

Avro Shackleton AEW.2

Twelve MR.2 variants were converted in 1971 to serve as an ‘interim’ AEW aircraft for the RAF, pending procurement of a modern system. Fitted with AN/APS-20 radars taken from retired Gannets (q.v) the Shackleton proved to be anything but interim, serving into the late ‘80s. Fondly nicknamed ‘ten thousand rivets flying in close formation’ the Shackleton was noisy, cramped and since it was equipped with a radar system dating back to the 1950s, was obsolete. It’s only saving grace was that it was better than no AEW and Shacklton crews became known for performing miracles with their ancient aircraft and systems.

BAe (HS) Nimrod AEW.3

A rare failure in the Nimrod story, only two aircraft of this variant flew, although 11 airframes had been allocated for the project. Problems with the GEC-Marconi radar and integration problems led to the project being dropped shortly after the outbreak of war. However BAe realised that a lot of the development work had not been totally wasted and that a larger airframe would solve some of the problems as a larger and more powerful computer could be carried in it, leading to the development of the VC10 based Guardian AEW.1 (q.v).

BAe Guardian AEW.1

When it became clear that the Nimrod AEW.3 (q.v) was never going to work the RAF cast around for a suitable replacement that could be put into service rapidly to replace the Shackleton. Fortunately not all of the work on the Nimrod had gone to waste and many of the problems, but not all of them, could be solved by a larger airframe, which could carry a larger, more powerful computer and a better cooling system. Ideally the RAF wanted to procure the American Sentry, but none were available, so the next most suitable aircraft was the VC.10. Again fortune smiled on the air force, BAe still had the VC.10 jigs, as they had hoped to sell them to China, and were also able to dust off studies for a VC.10 based AEW aircraft. With the urgencies of war the Guardian AEW.1 entered service within two years of the project being given the go-ahead, something of a record in the history of high-technology projects. Of course there was a downside, some of the problems that had manifested themselves on the Nimrod were never fully solved and the aft Skymaster radar frequently went unserviceable from vibration issues. It is also known that Guardians often flew with a large number of spare electronics and technicians aboard, so that running repairs could be carried out.

BAe Guardian AEW.2

With the experience of the Mark.1 variant behind it, post-war the RAF sought to procure a more reliable AEW platform. While the air force had never been fully satisfied with the Guardian’s systems, it did like the VC.10 based airframe. Now that the war was over it was also much easier to buy US electronics and the MOD decided that the best solution was to procure the AN/APY-2 radar system, as used by the American E-3 Sentry, which would be combined with the latest British and American electronics. At the same time the four elderly Rolls Royce Conway engines would be replaced with a pair of modern RB.211s. Continuously upgraded over the years the fleet of twelve Guardian AEW.2s will continue to serve with the RAF for at least the next two, to three years.

BAE/Airbus Military Voyager AEW.4

Currently at the development stage the RAF’s next generation AEW aircraft will be based on the new Voyager tanker aircraft. Little is known, as yet, about the particular configuration of the aircraft, however it is known that it will use a new AESA radar, rather than a more traditional rotating scanner.  Being a long-range wide-bodied aircraft the Voyager will be capable of staying on station for longer than any current fixed-wing AEW and will require less airborne refuelling.

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