Enigma unraveled: Australian E-7A Wedgetail ‘shot down’ Su-34

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An E-7A Wedgetail aircraft from the Royal Australian Air Force is prepared to journey back to Australia after a six-month tenure in Europe. Throughout this deployment, the aircraft took a prominent role in Operation Kudu, offering invaluable support to forces in Ukraine. Experts deem the Australian Wedgetail key to assisting Ukraine in downing several Russian military aircraft, marking it an essential player in this conflict. 

Photo credit: ADM

On April 2nd, Australia’s Defense Ministry announced the impending return of the E-7A aircraft. Rewind to October 2023, when the Royal Australian Air Force’s E-7A Wedgetail was deployed to Germany on a six-month mission, accompanied by a contingent of up to 100 Australian Defence Force personnel. 

What was their mission? They provided essential surveillance, securing the delivery and distribution of both military and humanitarian aid across Eastern Europe. During their deployment, the E-7A Wedgetail team accumulated over 250 hours of flight time, with individual missions averaging about five hours in the sky, according to the Defense Ministry. 

Photo credit: Boeing

Australian Defence Force personnel maintained support roles at the Ramstein Air Base in Germany throughout the mission. Lieutenant General Greg Bilton, the Chief of Joint Operations, lauded the ADF personnel’s endeavors in safeguarding this essential international humanitarian and military aid portal to Ukraine. He further stated, “The deployment served as a potent testament to Australia’s commitment to preserving the global rules-based order alongside our partners.” 

Air Marshal Robert Chipman, the Chief of Air Force, also extolled the E-7A Wedgetail, labeling it one of the world’s leading airborne early warning systems and an optimal choice for supporting this vital gateway. Expressing his view, he added, “I am exceptionally proud of our team for their tireless efforts, resilience, and inventiveness; a true epitome of our ethos.” 

The homeward journey of the E-7A Wedgetail signals the conclusion of a significant episode in Australia’s aid to Ukraine. However, this doesn’t indicate the end of Australia’s military aid to Ukraine in its entirety. 

Next up is the extended training component of Operation Kudu, which entails deploying up to 90 personnel to offer invaluable training to the Armed Forces of Ukraine personnel in the UK throughout 2024, as proposed by the Ministry of Defense.

The X-Factor?

Last year, the E-7A Wedgetail aircraft from the Royal Australian Air Force was stationed in Ukraine—a move that sparked intrigue within the expert community. Many pondered over the potential implications of supporting the Ukrainian military forces. 

Photo by Marina Lustseva

This speculation centered mainly around its suspected role in the alleged takedown of three Su-34 frontline bombers from the Russian Aerospace Forces [RuAF]. The potential unfamiliarity of the RuAF with the E-7A made this hypothesis particularly interesting.

It’s worth noting that the Western Airborne Warning and Control System [AWACS] aircraft’s influence, especially in bolstering Ukrainian strikes on Russian positions, was frequently highlighted by Russian authorities and media outlets. 

The intelligence capabilities and surveillance backups provided by Western allies played pivotal roles in Ukraine’s victories over Russia’s Black Sea fleet over the past two years. Despite this, Australia assertively stated that their Wedgetail was not the intelligence source behind these attacks. 

Although there’s a lack of solid evidence pointing to its direct role, the aircraft did play a significant part in maintaining the consistent international aid flow to Ukraine. It provided an early warning system against possible Russian threats. The E-7A, stationed outside the airspace of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine, kept a close watch on alternative air routes like Poland. It remained ready to alert ground defense systems about potential air strikes. 

Built on a Boeing 737 700 platform, the Wedgetail boasts key features such as its long-range surveillance radar. This allows the aircraft to simultaneously track marine and airborne targets. Lieutenant General Bilton highlighted the E-7A’s operation, focusing on its unique ability to fill a capability gap that NATO had yet been unable to address. Bilton’s interactions with his UK and European counterparts solidified his appreciation for this capacity. 

The Wedgetail’s crew primarily consisted of staff from the 2 Squadron, based in Newcastle. They were supported by resources from 1 Security Forces Squadron and 1 Combat Communications Squadron from Canberra, among other areas. The United States requested the placement of the Australian aircraft in Europe. As it stands, the US has made no indication to extend the deployment beyond its April cut-off. Hence, the mission’s culmination by Australia will not leave a gap in Western watch capabilities.

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