Force Multipliers

AWACS’ usefulness is contingent on onboard systems, such as radar, communication and ESM elements

Dinesh Kumar PandeyProf (Dr) Dinesh Kumar Pandey

To ensure the security and safety of the G20 meeting, held in New Delhi from 9-10 September 2023, the air defence system was activated to search the skies for any unusual air activity continuously. The Indian Air Force (IAF) has strategically placed ‘Netra’ Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) aircraft, along with a range of sensors that encompass portable radars capable of detecting objects at low altitudes, to provide 24/7 surveillance of airspace in and around Delhi-NCR.

The Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) and AEW&C are airborne radar-based systems that detect and track aircraft, ships, vehicles, missiles and other incoming projectiles at long ranges. It commands and controls the battlespace in an air engagement.

AWACS serves as a force multiplier by enhancing the capabilities of identifying and tracking unidentified or hostile aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and other similar entities. The system exhibits a comprehensive net-centric architecture, encompassing robust command and control capabilities. It facilitates the dissemination of pertinent information to ground personnel via multiple data links and can also receive data from the ground. This data is then integrated and fused onboard, generating a composite environmental representation for operators onboard the system. In its capacity as a command centre, this system facilitates the ability of operators on board to effectively choose, direct and guide designated interceptor aircraft to address and neutralise hostile threats adequately.

The development of the AWACS was undertaken with the explicit intention of addressing the inherent limitations and deficiencies of its technical design and operational capabilities. The airborne platform effectively carries out the various responsibilities and functions of Ground Control Interception (GCI) and is hence referred to as Airborne Control Interception (ACI). The utilisation of ACIs, such as AWACS and AEW&C, is pivotal in bolstering air defence operations.

Capabilities and Variants

AWACS can be utilised for a variety of roles in many different situations. The primary functions of the AWACS are:

(a)  To provide radar cover and tactical control of offensive missions.

(b)  Air battle management for explicit air situations.

(c)  Detection and interception of low/medium level ingress threat.

(d)  Aid to defence in depth by providing operational assistance.

(e)  Electronic Intelligence by ESM operations.

(f)  Air intelligence by surveillance capabilities.

(g)  Air space management over tactical battle area

(h)  Rescue and recovery of returning friendly missions with state-of-the-art mapping and navigation system onboard.

The platform (aircraft) type and radar system determine AWACS detection ranges. AWACS models vary in capabilities and limitations depending on terrain and topography. Estimated ranges of AWACS are:

One of the most popular AWACS models is the Boeing E-3 Sentry, built from the B-707. The E-3 Sentry features a rotating radar dome with a Westinghouse AN/APY-1 or AN/APY-2 passive electronically scanned array radar. It can detect and track low-flying aircraft up to 200 nautical miles (370 km) and high-level targets up to much greater distances. When flying at 30,000 feet, it can cover approximately 1,20,000 sq miles (310,798 sq kms).

The US navy, Japan, Russia, India, China and Pakistan use many AWACS variants, including the Northrop Grumman E-2 Hawkeye, Boeing E-767, Beriev A-50, KJ-2000 and Saab 2000 Erieye. Each model has distinct specs and performance.


AWACS Advantages

AWACS are widely acknowledged in military actions as potent force multipliers because of their inherent ability to augment the operational effectiveness of a given force, all while circumventing the need for a commensurate increase in its numerical strength. Crucial for modern air warfare, the AWACS confers many advantageous outcomes upon a military force.

(a)  Surveillance and situational awareness: AWACS aircraft are equipped with robust radar systems to detect and track aerial targets across a large area. This provides tactical decision-makers with up-to-the-moment information, improving their ability to counter threats.

(b)  Command and control: AWACS is a command-and-control hub in the sky, allowing military commanders to manage and coordinate air operations. They can direct armed interceptors (fighter aircraft) to engage incoming threats or guide them to targets.

(c)  Airborne battle management: These platforms facilitate airborne battle management, enabling better coordination between various elements of an air force, including fighters, bombers and ground-based air defences.

(d)  Force multiplier: AWACS systems have a multiplier effect, increasing the critical importance of current resources. It enhances the overall combat effectiveness of various air assets by extending their operational range, enhancing their situational awareness capabilities and facilitating synchronised operations. With just one AWACS platform in the theatre, commanders can monitor a larger geographical area and conduct operations at will.

(e)  Counter-air and anti-access/area denial (A2/AD): When enemies use anti-access or area denial measures, including sophisticated AD systems, AWACS can help identify vulnerabilities in these defences and direct friendly aircraft to take advantage of them. Counter-air operations are channelised safely and effectively.



AWACS and GCI perform similar roles for air operations. Nevertheless, the comparison between AWACS and GCI regarding their respective capabilities and operational functions can be examined.

Deployment Challenges: The deployment of GCIs presents challenges in selecting suitable sites. The performance of the GCI is severely impacted when the siting criteria are compromised. The primary requirements are the accessibility and suitability of a land-based radar location. ACIs are not subject to any site limits and can function in diverse areas and terrains, including but not limited to land, water, hills and forests.

Enhanced detection ranges: The detection capabilities of these sensors function on the principles of ‘Line of Sight (LoS)’ and radar horizon. LoS restrictions are effectively reduced in airborne control stations because of their clearance from ground-based obstructions.

Flexibility: Not every location is suitable for deploying GCIs. These sensors must be located at obstructions-free sites to optimise operating effectiveness. While it is possible to relocate GCIs to relevant sites, they are typically operated from a static location. ACIs have high flexibility, enabling the platform movement anywhere within a few minutes.

Cost-effectiveness: GCIs offer a more economical alternative than ACIs. The initial and ongoing expenses associated with ACIs are high as distinct fuels have distinct needs and varying consumption rates.

Maintenance bottlenecks: GCIs and ACIs need regular maintenance. There are situations when the maintenance process of ACIs is hindered or slowed down because of the non-availability of spares or experts, leading to delays or inefficiencies in the overall maintenance operations.

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