By Atul Kumar
The world of defence has by now woken up to the advanced technological changes that have completely altered the nature and dynamics of modern-age military conflicts, especially the aerial battles. And this technological upheaval in the battlefield isn’t just about stealth fighters or airborne drones, but more about state-of-the-art systems like multi-mission airborne radars that are a part of this revolution.
Today’s airborne radars are highly capable of detecting, tracking, and identifying hostile targets in the presence of threats from advanced electronic jamming and air-defence systems. These airborne computers are game-changers in any battlefield as they can distinguish actual targets even in unfavourable situations and complex physical surroundings, such as mountainous terrain and hostile maritime domain.
Given their critical role, every major air force in the world today deploys the powerful and unusual multi-mission airborne radars known as the Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) Surveillance Systems. Primarily, the AEW&C payload operates as the critical intelligence and control centre for air-defence missions. Given their massive surveillance and command capabilities, these radar planes are considered as the key force-multipliers in modern aerial warfare.
More importantly, these network-centric airborne computers function as the key component of the C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) umbrella of a military force and provide an enviable edge in both offensive and defensive missions. Once airborne, the sensor payload allows the radar aircraft to detect and track with pinpoint accuracy over a hundred genuine targets, such as low-flying combat jets, cruise missiles, UAVs, warships and land targets from hundreds of miles away. Interestingly, the computer can see even the enemy warplanes getting airborne from their respective airbases.
Given the above facts, it is rather alarming that the IAF, the fourth largest air force in the world with a fleet of around 1,700+ aircraft, has just five operational AEW&C systems at present. Shockingly, these numbers are even smaller than the Pakistan Air Force, leave alone China. The PAF maintains a numerical edge over the IAF in this critical segment by almost 2:1, even though the overall size of the PAF fleet is less than half of the IAF. On the other hand, the air force of China’s massive People’s Liberation Army has the numerical advantage of 6:1 over the IAF. Accordingly, the IAF still needs over a dozen more of these giant radar-planes to cover both fronts in the shortest possible time. Therefore, apart from weakening fighter strength, this indeed is another critical shortage that needs to be fixed as soon as possible.
IAF air operations are currently being supported by three large 360-degrees Elta’s massive Phalcon AEW&C antennas mounted on Russian Ilyushin IL-76 aircraft. They are the leading “eyes in the sky” of Indian Air Force. Given their significant capabilities, India could soon sign a deal worth US$1 billion to acquire two more Phalcon airborne radars from Israel. Besides, two smaller India-made ERJ-145 Netra AEW&C planes are also with the IAF to support its vast spectrum of aerial missions. Currently, this mini desi AWACS are being used as an integral component of all missions and exercises executed by the IAF. For instance, they had been extensively utilised during the ‘Balakot Airstrike’ by the IAF. A third ERJ-145 Netra AEW&C that has been flying with the air force will soon rejoin the fleet once the Bengaluru-based Centre for Air Borne Systems (CABS) completes the upgrade of the aircraft.
The last two years have been particularly challenging for India and its forces – first the Balakot Airstrike in Pakistan in retaliation for the Pulwama terror attack in February 2019, followed by the massive mobilisation in 2020 to counter the Chinese incursions in Ladakh. The AEW&C planes came into prominence in both instances, and affirmed their critical role during air operations. The upsurge in aerial missions has also compelled the IAF to think even more aggressively about its depleting strength, both in terms of Fighting as well as Surveillance capabilities. So, in a bid to keep pace with its rivals, the IAF has moved forward with plans to expand its limited AWACS fleet.
Last month, in a major move to expand Indian AEW&C fleet, the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) chaired by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh approved Rs 10,500 crore projects to develop six new ‘eyes in the sky’ for the air force. These new AWACS computers will be indigenously designed and developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and CABS, which is the nodal agency for the AWACS project.
Interestingly, the new DRDO-developed airborne AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array is a type of phased array antenna), will be mounted on the used Airbus A319/A320 commercial airliners from India’s national carrier Air India. Equipped with improved AESA technology (GaN instead of GaAs), enhanced set-up and an upgraded suite of AI-enabled sensors (IFF, ELINT, COMINT, SPS, etc.), the new A319/A320 AEW&C would be much superior to the existing desi ERJ-145 Netra AEW&C. Besides, they are likely to operate on L-band, unlike the C-band used by the ERJ-145 Netra. This will significantly improve the effectiveness of the airborne command and control capabilities of the system. The azimuth coverage of the ‘A320 AEW&C’ would also be much higher (approx between 300° and 360°), compared to the Netra Mk-1 (ERJ-145 AEW&C), whose antenna provides only 240°+ azimuth coverage in the air. These new ‘A320 AEW&C’ of IAF will be developed as “Netra Block-2.”
This new project for six A320 AEW&C systems will save huge time and money as sourcing of aircraft from government-owned Air India would not pose much problem. These readily available Air India planes will be revamped into the special mission vehicles by the OEM (Airbus) facility in Europe where they will get a complete makeover to accommodate DRDO’s new enhanced AESA payload. According to a Livefist report, the AESA payload on upcoming Block-2 AEW will also be a “Netra-styled” antenna.
As per the DRDO’s plan, it is looking to deliver the first two systems within 48 months of placement of contract for aircraft modification with the OEM. More interestingly, it is targeting the delivery of all six aircraft to the IAF within six to seven years, which is indeed a quick turnaround compared to industry standards. However, the project is awaiting final approval from the cabinet committee on security (CCS) chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Once inducted, this AWACS will empower the IAF’s surveillance as well as battlefield strategy for another 25-30 years.
Apart from this, earlier the DRDO was also thinking of the Airbus C-295 turboprop aircraft as a better cost-effective solution for its new-generation airborne AESA antenna. Therefore, last year at the DefExpo in Lucknow, CABS also unveiled a model of the C-295 AEW&C fitted with its Netra-styled AESA. As both the IAF and DRDO moved ahead with this Rs 10,500 crore ‘Netra Block-2’ programme, the bigger ‘A-330 AEW’ deal seems to have fallen off the radar.
Rs 5,100 crore deal to acquire two Airbus A-330 aircraft for the heavier DRDO-developed AESA radome, was in the pipeline since 2015 and waiting for the final CCS approval. With additional tanker capability for refuelling, the dual-role A-330 based AEW&C systems would be much more capable than the ‘Netra Block-2’ and other AEW&C systems flying in the region today. They would be in the league of giant AEW&C systems such as the IAF Phalcon, PLAAF KJ-2000, Beriev A-50, etc. Therefore, the termination of the ‘A-330 AWACS’ would be a big setback for the Indian Air Force.
–The writer is a Defence Journalist-Analyst. He has done essays for multiple Defence and Security publications. Views expressed are of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda