IAF’s Critical Deficiency

China and Pakistan have a good inventory of airborne early warning systems

Atul Chandra

Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) and Airborne Early Warning and Control System (AEW&C) aircraft are of vital importance in the modern battlefield. While modern fighter aircraft have advanced radars with improved detection range, they still have limited range as compared to AWACS/ AEW&C aircraft. Today’s highly sophisticated AWACS/ AEW&C aircraft can provide the combat pilot with better battlefield awareness which enhances their mission effectiveness.

E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft

The USAF’s legacy E-3 AWACS aircraft for example, with its distinct rotating radar dome has a detection range of over 400 km. According to the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), its E-7A Wedgetail AWACS can cover more than four million square kilometres, an area the size of Western Australia or the Northern Territory during a standard mission.


Delayed Vision

The Indian Air Force (IAF) at present appears to be stuck in a limbo with regards to its AWACS/ AEW&C plans, but the advanced militaries of the world are already working on the next-generation of these advanced airborne command posts. The IAF presently operates three Israeli Phalcon AWACS platforms along with two DRDO ‘Netra’ AEW&C aircraft. A third Netra aircraft is slated for delivery to the IAF later this year.

In comparison, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) has a sizeable AEW&C fleet estimated at five Saab Erieye AEW&C aircraft along with four Chinese ZDK03 Karakoram Eagle AWACS aircraft, which are integrated into the PAF’s Command & Control Ground Environment. The IAF will also need to cater to China’s large AWACS/AEW&C fleet and the need for the IAF’s own such platforms to be able to detect the People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s (PLAAF) growing fleet of stealth fighters.

Another challenge for the IAF will be the likely declining serviceability of its Phalcon AWACS. Spares from Russia are now becoming increasingly difficult to obtain and these Russian IL-76 based aircraft were first inducted in 2009 and are now approaching 15 years in service. The Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO) is pursuing a Rs.10,500 crore programme for development of an AWACS system using second-hand Airbus A320 family jetliners purchased from Air India. This indigenous effort, however, is unlikely to result in an operational system before the end of the decade. The IAF is also pursuing the acquisition of an Intelligence Surveillance Targeting and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) aircraft from the US.

Given the importance of AWACS/ AEW&C platforms in the modern battlefield, the IAF needs to begin a search for a modern platform to meet its urgent operational needs, while indigenous AWACS/ AEW&C programmes pursue apace for fruition. Media reports indicate that the air force is amenable to leasing AWACS/AEW&C platforms to cater to the urgent operational necessity to have these aircraft in service.


USAF Picks E-7A

In February, the USAF announced a prototype contract for acquiring the Boeing’s E-7A AWACS aircraft. The Department of the Air Force’s (DAF) Boeing contract is to not exceed USD 1.2 billion. The DAF selected the E-7A to replace the E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System. “We conducted a thorough analysis of viable industry options to ensure the selected E-3 replacement could meet the specific needs of the US. Until the E-7A is fielded, we will continue to rely on the E-3 AWACS,” said Andrew Hunter, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics. “The rapid prototyping programme will integrate US-based mission systems into the existing airborne platform to meet DAF requirements while simultaneously ensuring interoperability with coalition and allied partners already operating the E-7A,” he added.

The DAF selected the E-7A in 2022, establishing an E-7A Program Management Office the same year. The DAF is using the rapid prototyping acquisition pathway to acquire the first two E-7As. “The E-7 is a proven platform,” said Stu Voboril, the E-7 programme vice president and general manager. “It is the only advanced aircraft that is capable of meeting the US Air Force’s near-term Airborne Early Warning & Control requirement while enabling integration across the joint force.”

Boeing is slated to begin production of the first aircraft in 2025 and the USAF is to induct the first E-7A in 2027. It will acquire another 24 aircraft by 2032 for a total E-7A fleet of 26 aircraft. “The E-7A will be the department’s principal airborne sensor for detecting, identifying, tracking and reporting all airborne activity to Joint Force commanders,” said Hunter. “This contract award is a critical step in ensuring that the department continues delivering battlespace awareness and management capabilities to US war fighters, allies and partners for the next several decades. The E-7A will enable greater airborne battlespace awareness through its precise, real-time air picture and will be able to control and direct individual aircraft under a wide range of environmental and operational conditions.”

The E-7A will be a paradigm jump over the legacy E-3 AWACS and will feature advanced Airborne Moving Target Indication and Battle Management, Command and Control capabilities in addition to its advanced Northrop Grumman Multi-Role Electronically Scanned Array (MESA) radar, which will transform airborne battle management and enable long-range kill chains against potential peer adversaries.

Boeing’s combat-proven E-7 is already in service with the UK, Australia, Korea and Turkey. It is converted from the Next Generation 737-700 commercial jetliner bringing in lower operating and sustainment costs and higher mission readiness rates. The E-7 system was developed by Australia for the Australian Defence Forces. The UK Royal Air Force (RAF) inducted its first E-3D Sentry into service in March 1991 and will be replaced this year by a fleet of three Boeing E-7 Wedgetails that will operate from RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) operates a fleet of Boeing E-3A AWACS with 14 aircraft based at Nato Air Base (NAB) Geilenkirchen in Germany. The Nato Airborne Early Warning and Control Force (NAEW&C Force) is one of the few military assets actually owned and operated by Nato as the vast majority of military assets deployed under the Nato banner are national capabilities belonging to its individual member countries. Nato’s E-3 AWACS fleet is predicted to retire soon after 2035.

Under normal circumstances, a single E-3A can operate at 30,000 feet for about eight and a half hours covering a surveillance area of more than 310,798 square km. The aircraft has an unrefuelled operating radius of 9250 km. The E-3As radome rotates once every 10 seconds providing 360-degree radar coverage that can detect aircraft more than 400 km away. An aircraft flying at 30,000 feet can perform surveillance area coverage of more than 3,10,798 square kilometres (approximately the size of Poland). Three aircraft operating in overlapping, coordinated orbits can provide unbroken radar coverage of the whole of Central Europe.


China’s Capability

The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) is emerging as a potent adversary and is giving necessary importance to growing its AWACS capability. The KJ-500 is one of its newest AWACS platforms and is based on the Y-9 medium-sized tactical transport aircraft. The transport aircraft’s limited operational radius and endurance has been enhanced in the AWACS version by incorporation of aerial refuelling capability.

The KJ-500 is manufactured by the Shaanxi Aircraft Industry Corporation and the company is also the manufacturer of other Chinese special mission aircraft such as the KJ-200 AEW&C aircraft, Y-8 anti-submarine patrol aircraft and Y-8 electronic warfare aircraft. Towards the end of 2022, the company announced that it had delivered twice as many aircraft compared to 2021.

In 2020, the Chinese media announced that an aircraft reportedly called the KJ-600 had made its maiden flight from a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) aircraft carrier. The KJ-600 is an AEW&C platform which has a range of 400-500 km. The medium-sized aircraft is powered by two WJ-6C turboprop engines. The new aircraft bears a resemblance to the US E-2 ‘Hawkeye’ AEW&C aircraft.



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