Airborne Alert

IAF is facing a shortfall in airborne early warning capability

Atul Chandra

The Indian Air Force (IAF) is likely to face a shortfall in its airborne early warning capability over the course of this decade as it waits for the Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO) to complete an ambitious Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) development programme. The IAF’s integrated perspective plan had envisaged the deployment of AWACS and AEW&C platforms but IAF now faces a critical gap in its airborne early warning capability. This is further exacerbated by the need for sufficient numbers of these assets to be located on its Western and Eastern borders. The IAF presently operates three Israeli Phalcon AWACS platforms along with two DRDO ‘Netra’ AEW&C aircraft.

DRDO-made Netra AEW&C

AWACS India Programme

DRDO’s efforts for development of critical airborne early warning capability for the IAF is less than optimal. Efforts  since the mid-eighties  resulted in only two operational AEW&C aircraft. The Centre for Airborne Systems (CABS) located in Bengaluru was originally established as the Airborne Surveillance, Warning and Control Centre (ASWAC) in 1985 to study the feasibility of developing an indigenous AWACS aircraft and was renamed as CABS in 1991. CABS proceeded to convert an H-748 Avro aircraft into a mini AWACS namely Airborne Surveillance Platform (ASP), which ended in disaster when the prototype aircraft was lost in a crash.

The DRDO, originally, was to have utilised the learnings from the indigenous AEW&C programme ‘Netra’ for the ‘AWACS India’ programme. To be developed on an Airbus A330 as the platform, the DRDO will now proceed with used A320 jet-liners donated by Air India. These aircraft will be modified for military use by Airbus in France. DRDO labs will use indigenously designed and developed systems which will be integrated on the A320 to provide on-board Command & Control and Early Warning for the IAF. The Rs10,500 crore project will deliver six AWACS aircraft to the IAF based on an A320 platform. This is more than double the original 2015 cost estimate of approximately Rs5000 crore for the more capable A330 based AWACS India aircraft. The A320 is a smaller single-aisle commercial jet liner and does not have a military derivative unlike the A330 which is a larger twin-aisle commercial jet liner, which is also available in a military variant as the A330 MRTT mid-air refueller. There would have been some commonality with the A330 used as the same platform for an airborne early warning aircraft and as a mid-air refueller.

The Netra AEW&C programme was to have led to the development of the larger AWACS India programme, which was approved by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) in February 2013. The original schedule had called for the AWACS India programme to complete by 2020-2021. A tender for six AEW&C system aircraft was issued in March 2014, with Airbus Defence & Space emerging as the sole bidder in 2015 with the A330. At Aero India 2015, the DRDO showcased a model of the proposed AWACS India configuration with a model of an A330 with an overhead radome. At the time, plans had called for the procurement of an initial batch of two aircraft, followed by four more. There was also a proposal for four additional aircraft as options at a later stage.

Netra AEW&C

India and Brazil entered into a deal to jointly develop an AEW&C system for the IAF in August 2008. CABS was the nodal agency for design, system integration and testing. Other DRDO labs involved are the Electronics and Radar Development Establishment (LRDE), Bengaluru for the design of radar array and Defence Electronics Application Laboratory (DEAL), Dehradun for Data Link and Communication Systems.

Embraer modified its EMB-145 regional jet aircraft to carry the DRDO developed Active Array Antenna Unit (AAAU) on its top fuselage. In addition to its fuselage mounted Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, Netra aircraft are fitted with Identification Friend or Foe equipment, Electronic Support Measures (ESM), Communication Support Measures, and Line-of-Sight and SATCOM Data Links. The aircraft is capable of communicating using VHF, UHF, C-Band and SATCOM links for Network Centric Operations. The Netra aircraft provides 240-degree radar coverage, as compared to the overhead radome design for an AWACS, which would provide 360-degree coverage of the airspace. It also has mid-air refuelling capability, allowing it stay in the air for five hours or more. The Netra AEW&C aircraft is capable of locating and providing early warning information to air and ground stations of airborne & sea surface targets, and hostile emissions.

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