US Air Force launches new ‘eSeries’ aircraft designation. The internet has questions.

Valerie Insinna
·3 min read

WASHINGTON — Aircraft, satellites and other weapons that are designed using digital engineering will be designated as part of the Air Force’s new “eSeries” and receive the prefix “e," Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett announced Monday.

The move is mean to “inspire companies to embrace the possibilities embraced by digital engineering,” Barrett said during a Sept. 14 speech at the Air Force Association’s Air, Space and Cyber conference.

Service leaders — including Barrett and Air Force acquisition exec Will Roper — see digital engineering as a key enabler to reduce the cost and time needed to develop new weapon systems, using virtual modeling and simulation tools to design and test the product before a physical prototype is produced.

Boeing’s T-7A Red Hawk trainer jet will be the first aircraft to receive the new eSeries designator, Barrett said.

“The eT-7 is just the first in our vision of a long line of e-planes and e-sats,” she said. “For 73 years, the entire history of the Air Force, X-planes have represented technological innovation. Today, the e-plane and e-sat will join them in making history and ensuring airmen and space professionals have modern tools to protect our nation.”

The announcement initially prompted confusion over social media as users pointed out that the U.S. military already uses the prefix "E" to designate aircraft that carry equipment for electronic warfare, airborne early warning and airborne command and control missions, as well as those that provide communications relay and tactical data links.

These aircraft include the Navy’s EA-18 Growler electronic attack plane, the Air Force’s E-8 JSTARS surveillance aircraft and the E-6 Mercury, used as an airborne command post for launching intercontinental ballistic missiles.

“Usually aircraft designations are designed with functionality in mind,” said Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst with the Teal Group. “It’s never been used to describe how they were developed, and I’m not so sure what that has to do with anything that the people who need to keep track of designations need to know. What’s the objective here?”

The new designation “breaks with precedent in replacing functionality with branding, it’s completely confusing for the users, and it’s already been taken,” Aboulafia said. “Other than that, it’s a great idea.”

The Air Force then clarified that the eSeries designator "e" should be rendered in lowercase to differentiate it from electronic warfare and early warning aircraft that get the "E" prefix.

“Instruction 16-401 is being updated to include the process for determining and assigning the ‘ePlane’ designation,” Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said. "The Service Acquisition Executive (SAE) will determine whether an acquisition program meets the digital acquisition threshold. If the system meets the digital acquisition requirements, the "e" designation will be authorized for use on that program."

The service also noted that the "e" designator is temporary and that “the program office will request the aircraft mission design series update to drop [the] 'e' [designator]” once the program moves into production, Stefanek said.