American aerospace and defense technology giant Northrop Grumman will kick-start its production of the Multi-role Electronically Scanned Array (MESA) sensor for the future US Air Force (USAF) E-7 aircraft.

Built by Boeing, the E-7 aircraft is the next-generation Airborne Early Warning & Control (AEW&C) developed to replace the nearly half-a-decade-old E-3 Sentry (also known as the Airborne Warning and Control System, or AWACS) and serve as the backbone of tactical battle management with “unparalleled abilities to scan the skies, communicate with surface, ground, and air assets, and enable integration across the joint force.”

Earlier this month, the USAF awarded Boeing the building contract for the first batch of E-7A with an expected 26 units worth around $1.2 billion. Negotiations on the new aircraft have been in the works since last year after the service branch decided to replace its aging E-3, which launched in the 1970s. With roughly 13 of the latter in the process of retirement (almost half of the fleet) this year, the USAF hopes to induct the modernized battlefield management aircraft by fiscal 2027.

During wartime, the AEW&C system is fielded to provide fighter jets command and control in the battlespace, transmitting critical information on incoming strikes from detecting hostile aircraft, ships, armored vehicles, missiles, etc., at long ranges.

Because of its mobility in the air, the AEW&C system is less vulnerable to counterattacks than ground-based radars.

Enhanced Command and Control

Northrop’s latest MESA sensor will be integrated into the weapon system of the E-7, providing a significant boost to its “critical long-range sensing, detection, and identification in challenging environments.”

In a statement, Northrop’s vice president of airborne surveillance programs, Ed Griebel, explained that “[t]he multifunction MESA sensor will provide the US Air Force with critical multi-domain awareness to enable decision superiority for the range of mission requirements today and into the future.”

He continued: “As we fulfill our promise to the USAF to rapidly bring unmatched, decisive air battle management sensing capabilities, including long-range first detect and first engagement in the battlespace, we look forward to enabling global allied interoperability in partnership with Boeing.”