Shot in the Arm

Government clearance paves the way for two additional long range AWACS for the IAF

Palak Gupta

Nearly three years ago, with the objective of enhancing its Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, India inducted the indigenous airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) Netra into its armed forces in 2017.

Clockwise from top IAF’s Netra AEW&C; Phalcon A-50I on IL-76; P-8I maritime reconnaissance aircraft;

India currently operates two of Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO’s) Netra which is a multi-sensor fitted on an Embraer-145. A third one is being tested. India also has three IL76 Phalcon systems, that were jointly developed with Israel and Russia, in her inventory.

Netra was also used during the February 2019 Balakot strikes.

For any military operation, ISR plays the linchpin role. The key to effective ISR is optimising the interoperability of land, sea, air, space systems and the men behind these machines. This optimised networking and interoperability helps facilitate the conversion of raw data into actionable intelligence rapidly.

The Indian armed forces’ inventory of ISR assets include airborne warning and control system (AWACS) and AEW&C aircraft to maritime reconnaissance aircraft (MRA) and helicopters to specialised surveillance and reconnaissance Unmanned Aerial Platforms and satellites.

ISR, which has several applications at operational, strategic and the tactical level, is crucial for both conventional and nuclear deterrence adding to war-preparedness.

In October 2017, the then Chief of Army Staff, who now serves as Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), General Bipin Rawat, had acknowledged the pressing requirement of equipment that further emboldens the ISR capabilities of the military.

A report by the Hindustan Times published in January 2020 said that the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) had cleared a joint proposal of the DRDO and the Indian Air Force (IAF) to purchase two Airbus 330s and convert them into 360-degree long-range capability AWACS.

The project will cost Rs 9,000 crore and the proposal is now before the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS).

“As a follow up of the successful indigenous AEW&C programme, the DAC revalidated the Acceptance of Necessity for the procurement of additional AWACS India aircraft. The mission system and sub-systems for these aircraft would be indigenously designed, developed and integrated onto the main platform by DRDO,” a statement from the Indian ministry of defence (MoD) issued in November 2019 read.

The statement added, “These platforms would provide on-board Command & Control and ‘Early Warning which would assist the 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.”


A Brief History

India started looking into such platforms in the Eighties when a requirement report of an indigenous AWACS platform was floated to the MoD. In 1991, DRDO sanctioned a project called the Airborne Surveillance Platform (ASP) and consequently, the Centre of Air Borne Systems (CABS) was established in Bengaluru.

UAVs: An unmanned aerial vehicle (UAVs), which is a point sensor and not a wide-area surveillance asset, acts as the eyes behind the enemy lines without putting human lives at risk.

The first UAV India inducted was Searcher I in 1996 from Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI). It was followed by Searcher II and the Heron (MALE) in 2000 and 2001, respectively.

Searcher II: The armed forces of Israel, India, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand and Turkey use Searcher series. This drone series is as follows: Searcher which is base series designation, Searcher MKI which is first generation model of 1992, Searcher MKII which is improved second generation model of 1998 and Searcher MKIII which is updated searcher UAV platform.

Heron: The IAI Heron is a Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) unmanned aerial system (UAS) for “strategic and tactical missions.” According to IAI, “The Heron is capable of operations of up to 45 hours duration, at up to 35,000 ft. Robust and combat proven with hundreds of thousands of operational flight hours.”

Sea Guardian: India will also procure 30 Sea Guardian (HALE) surveillance drones from the US worth USD4.5 billion. If the two countries seal the deal, India will be the first non-NATO member and only the third country after the UK and Italy to be offered the Sea Guardians by the US government. However, there will not be a technology transfer to India. MQ-9 Reaper drone, built by General Atomics, is also a weapon system that India seeks to acquire.

Rustom 2: India’s DRDO successfully completed the test flight of its Rustom 2 drone on 25 February 2018 at its Aeronautical Test Range (ATR) at Chalakere in Chitradurga (Karnataka). This was announced by DRDO in a statement.

Rustom 2 has been designed and developed by Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE) of the DRDO and the drone is a part of the Rustom line of UAVs that include Rustom-I, Rustom-H and Rustom-C.  India’s paramilitary forces have received the Netra UAV and have put it to use in Kashmir for identifying, tracking and locating on ground targets. The Black Hornet UAV is used by the National Security Guards (NSG) for reconnaissance during counter-terrorism operations.


Indian Navy’s MPA Assets

With a coastline of 7,516.6km, patrol/ reconnaissance aircraft are crucial for Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA). These aircraft are designed or adapted to perform aerial reconnaissance with roles including collection of imagery intelligence (including using photography), signals intelligence, as well as measurement and signature intelligence. For this purpose, the Indian Navy inventory includes fixed wing platforms such as Boeing’s P-8I, Ilyushin’s Il-38 and Dornier Do-228.

Boeing’s P-8I: The Indian Navy operates a P-8A version designated as P-8I. Boeing P-8I aircraft is a long-range, multi-mission maritime patrol aircraft. India presently operates eight P-8Is with four more in production. These were to be delivered in the first quarter of 2020, however, with Covid-19 pandemic, the delivery schedule will be revised. Meanwhile, negotiations for procurement of six additional P-8Is are underway. The Indian Navy operates its entire fleet of P-8I maritime patrol aircraft from Rajali, the naval base in Arakkonam, Tamil Nadu.

Il-38 MPA: The aircraft designed by the Russia-based Ilyushin Aviation Complex can be deployed in surveillance, search and rescue, maritime reconnaissance and anti-submarine warfare operations. The aircraft can detect and intercept surface vessels and submarines.

It is currently in service with the Russian Navy and Indian Navy. The upgraded Il-38 of the Russian Navy and Indian Navy are Il-38N and Il-38SD respectively. The SD standard upgraded version of the Indian Navy is believed to track 32 targets simultaneously, detect airborne targets at 90km and sea targets at 320km.

The upgraded version is fitted with improved radar functionality, Sea Dragon (SD) avionics suite Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR), targeting system and electronic intelligence (ELINT) system.

Dornier Do-228: Indian Coast Guard (ICG) also carries aerial surveillance using shore-based aircraft and helicopters. These aerial platforms sanitise large areas of sea. Helicopters operating from the deck of ships also undertake surveillance. The aircraft and helicopters are equipped with sensors and weapons to monitor and combat unlawful activities at sea.

The ICG stepped up surveillance and deployed more assets (ships and aircraft) for patrolling after the Sri Lanka Easter bombing in 2019.

Dornier 228, a multirole platform, is the most advanced aircraft in its class. It is operated for maritime patrol (pollution control, search and rescue, border control and fishery patrol), surveillance and reconnaissance. Powered 2 x Garrett (later Honeywell) engines, Dornier is a short-range maritime reconnaissance aircraft. The Indian Navy is procuring 12 Dornier aircraft with improved sensors.

Establishing the significance of ISR assets, Council for International Policy’s non-resident fellow Debalina Ghoshal in an earlier piece for FORCE wrote, ‘States, whether at peace or at war, need sophisticated and advanced ISR capabilities for both conventional and nuclear deterrence to prevail,’ adding, ‘No battle can be won without the right knowledge about enemy’s whereabouts while on the other hand, during peacetime, it is important to gather information about enemy’s whereabouts to avoid conflict by being better prepared for the challenge.’


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