Flying Blind

Policy flipflops leave India behind Pakistan, China in airborne early warning systems

Atul Chandra

The Indian Air Force (IAF) has made no progress in its efforts to induct greater numbers of specialised aircraft ranging from the Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS), Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) and the smaller Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) platforms in over a decade.

Currently, the focus of the air force appears to be the procurement of additional mid-air refuellers and fighter aircraft. This has left it reliant on its fleet of three A-50I Phalcon AWACS aircraft and two Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO) developed AEW&C Netra aircraft.

With a live eastern border and a need to constantly monitor air and ground activity in the area, the IAF is short of the airborne early warning and ISR assets needed for the task. Alive to the threat of Chinese expansionism, even the United States Air Force (USAF) has been working to revamp its ISR operations in recent years, though it is focussing on development of new capabilities such as space-based ISR and next-generation platforms capable of multiple roles and penetrating contested airspace. But older legacy ISR platforms will still have a major role to play in any future battle.

The Pakistan Air Force is known to operate a fleet of at least eight-10 airborne early warning aircraft comprising the Saab Erieye AEW&Cs and Chinese ZDK03 Karakoram Eagle AWACS. China, which is in the midst of a dramatic military build-up of its capabilities, is thought to possess over 20 AEW&C/AWACS platforms and also relies on high-end medium altitude long endurance (MALE) and high altitude long endurance (HALE) drones for persistent ISR capability.


Capability on pause

Despite the importance of ISR and airborne early warning platforms, the IAF is short in this arena. With a focus on homegrown platforms at the moment, the air force has no recourse but to wait for an indigenous alternative to be developed. But the challenge here is a continued series of policy flipflops that have resulted in further delay in development of an indigenous airborne early warning platform.

The DRDO began its journey to develop a modern AEW asset for the IAF in the mid-2000s. This resulted in the DRDO and the IAF coming together to undertake an ambitious project for the development of an AEW&C aircraft in 2004. The Centre for Airborne Systems (CABS) in Bengaluru was tasked with the development of India’s first indigenously developed AEW&C platform and Embraer was selected to provide three EMB-145 business jets in 2008. Embraer has earlier delivered four of its Legacy 600 business jets to the IAF for VIP transportation and one Legacy 600 to the Border Security Force (BSF) in 2005.

The Brazilian airframer delivered the first two EMB-145s in 2012, following which the aircraft commenced flight testing. Embraer was contracted to undertake integration of the fuselage mounted airborne Active Electronically Scanned Antenna (AESA) radar, which was developed in India, and to also obtain flight certification of the aircraft. An important modification that required to be done was the integration of an air-to-air refuelling probe on the aircraft, and this was the first time that such an endeavour was being attempted on the EMB-145.

Distinguished scientist and CABS director M S Easwaran said: “The CABS has delivered two India’s own Airborne Early Warning and Control System, Netra to Indian Air Force. The completion of this programme and the capabilities and expertise developed and established through this programme have paved the way for the design, development and delivery of next-generation airborne surveillance systems such as the Advanced Air Borne Early Warning and Control System and Intelligence, Surveillance, Targeting and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) system for the IAF and the Maritime Multi-Mission Aircraft (MMMA) for Indian Coast Guard. These have necessitated improvements to existing capabilities and also bringing up new capabilities and technologies.”

The primary radar was developed by the LRDE, the integrated Radar Warning Receiver (RWR) and Electronic Support Measure (ESM) system was developed at DARE, while the Data Links and Communication Support Measure (CSM) system were developed by DEAL and DLRL respectively.

But, despite these positive proclamations, the fact is that it took 13 years to deliver the first AEW&C Netra aircraft to the IAF in 2017 as the project started in 2004. It is quite likely that the two aircraft fleet of Netra AEW&Cs are also posing a maintenance challenge for the IAF. Interestingly, the DRDO was not mandated to provide post-delivery support for these aircraft. Since the programme called for only three AEW&C platforms (one of which was retained by the DRDO), it was not possible for the DRDO to identify any formal production agency for the system as is usually the case. As a result, the DRDO had to devise a new strategy to enable the maintenance and support of the systems. A qualified agency was thus sought to be nominated as the Engineering and Life Support Agency (ELSA). This was put through competitive bidding in which Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) emerged as the winner.


AWACS Part Deux

In May 2013, the then defence minister, A K Antony, said in a reply to parliament that the IAF was looking to enhance its airborne surveillance and command and control capabilities, which was sought to be achieved through procurement of additional AWACS aircraft. It was in February 2013 that the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) had approved the indigenous development of the AWACS (India) programme by the DRDO, which would cost approximately Rs 5,000 crore.

Antony had stated that this programme would leverage the experience and expertise gained in the design and development of the indigenous AEW&C aircraft by the DRDO. The development of the AWACS (India) project was envisaged to have been completed in 84 months (seven years) from the date of the formal sanction of the programme. The platform originally envisaged for the AWACS (India) programme was the Airbus A330 commercial jetliners, presumably on the grounds that the A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) had then been selected by the IAF to meet its requirement for a mid-air refueller. The CABS also designed and developed a state-of-the-art Digital Airborne Active Electronically Scanned Array (DA2ESA) radar for primary and secondary surveillance for the AWACS (India) programme.

In November 2019, the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC), chaired by defence minister Rajnath Singh, revalidated the Acceptance of Necessity (AoN) for the AWACS (India) procurement as a follow up to the indigenous AEW&C programme. “These platforms would provide on-board command and control and early warning, which would assist the Indian Air Force (IAF) in achieving effective air space dominance in the least possible time. Induction of these systems would increase the extent of coverage along our borders and greatly enhance both the air defence and offensive capabilities of the IAF,” an MoD release issued at that time stated.

A key change that has emerged is that the platform to be used would be the Airbus A321 aircraft procured from the erstwhile government-owned airline Air India. In September 2021, the CCS, which is chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, approved the Rs 11,000 crore project to develop an indigenous airborne early warning aircraft for the air force. Considering the complexity of developing such an AWACS aircraft, the IAF can hope to take delivery of the first aircraft only towards the end of this decade.


Unmanned Surveillance

The DRDO-developed Tapas BH-201 (Tactical Advanced Platform for Aerial Surveillance Beyond Horizon-201) MALE drone is a two tonne unmanned aerial system (UAS) that is being developed to carry out ISR missions for the Indian armed forces. As per the information provided by the DRDO on its website, the MALE drone will have an operating altitude of 30,000 ft and an endurance of 24 hours with electro-optic and synthetic aperture radar payloads and a range of 250 km.

Its mission requirements are to provide continuous wide area coverage and yet be able to identify small targets. The Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) has already commenced the manufacture of six airframes, which will be used to produce the development aircraft that will be used for evaluation trials. The Tapas programme has been under way since 2016 and the evaluation trials are only likely to be completed in 2023-24. As a result, the production of these MALE drones can only be expected to begin by 2025 at the earliest.



Mission systems on DRDO ‘Netra’ AEW&C Aircraft

  • Fixed antenna AESA based primary radar system
  • Fully indigenous, electronically scanned antenna-based MK-XII(S) and mode 4 capable IFF System
  • Communication Support Measure (CSM) system
  • Electronic Support Measure system (ESM)
  • Self-protection Suite (SPS) consisting of UV-based Missile Approach Warning Sensor (MAWS) and Radar Warning Receiver (RWR)
  • Satellite-based Non Line-of-Sight Communication and Data Link
  • C band Line-of-Sight Communication and Data Link
  • V/UHF voice only communications system
  • Mission Computer
  • Reconfigurable Operator Work Stations.


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