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Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS)

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Having a robust fleet of AWACS is paramount for a nation like India with a great deal of territory to cover. A beginning has been made with several foreign and indigenous procurement in pipeline, however, these needs to be implemented on fast track coupled with going ahead with more procurements to meet the requirements of the Armed Forces.

The Airborne Early Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft has emerged as the 21st Century “Eye in the Sky” because of its credibility in being able to meet the requirement of Armed Forces by providing real-time intelligence, command and control needed to maintain air superiority over the combat area and to enable surveillance of borders. From an early need of tracking low flying intruders against ground clutter, the airborne radar surveillance began as AEW&C and gradually evolved as AWACS. Developed as consequence of increased air defence requirements that could not be met by ground based sensors; basically AWACS is a mobile, long-range radar surveillance and control centre used for air defence and is based on an airborne radar system installed on an aircraft, the main mission of which is to detect far off air targets -aircraft, missiles, ships and vehicles. Even more so, it denies the enemy the use of that specific air space. Besides, radar that functions on a dynamic airborne platform provides far more effectiveness in look-ahead capability as well as detailed coverage of a large volume of airspace, down to the ground level as it looks down. Many countries have developed their own AWACS systems, although the Boeing E-3 Sentry and Northrop Grumman E-2 Hawkeye are the most common systems used worldwide.

India's AWACS Programmes & Procurement

India had been trying to induct an AEW & Control aircraft into its fleet since 1980s that would give it the ability to patrol and act at extended ranges. In 1985, the Government approved a joint proposal of DRDO and IAF for technology demonstration programme, under Project Guardian/Airawat. The programme was a disc based (rotodome) radar, mounted on the fuselage of an Avro light transport aircraft of the IAF. However, the project did not meet much success with various radar related technologies were still being in preliminary stages of development even after 14 years of the project. Subsequently, the programme was scrapped in January 1999 when the Hawker Siddeley HS-748 testbed aircraft crashed in a test flight.

India restarted its indigenous programme in 2004 as 'AEW&C Project' based on the Embraer 145 platform. The DRDO AEW&CS programme aims to deliver three mini radar-equipped surveillance aircraft to the Indian Air Force (IAF). The radar is being developed by DRDO labs (LRDE, CABS, DLRL). While this project was sanctioned in 2004, the IAF's three year delay in finalizing the system's requirements, resulted with India signed the deal finally in 2008 with Brazil for joint development of an Early Warning System for the IAF. Under the deal, Brazil's Embraer aircraft manufacturer will modify the airframe of its regional jet aircraft, EMB-145 to carry the Active Array Antenna Unit (AAAU), developed by the DRDO on the aircraft's fuselage. The responsibility between various DRDO laboratories in developing the systems is split as follows:

  • LRDE and DEAL - Primary radar, and IFF
  • DEAL - Communication Systems and Data Link
  • DARE - Self Protection suite, EW & CSM
  • DLRL - Self Protection suite (counter measures)
  • CABS - Overall Program Management, Integration & development of the data handling system, displays, mission computers etc.

The AEW&C aircraft will have a AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array) radar with IFF facility. The Embraer Aerial platform will also have Electronic Support Measures (ESM) and Communication Support Measures (CSM) facility. Data links to network the Embraer based radar with fighter planes and ground based control systems has also been placed, along with the most essential Satellite Communication System. The AEW&C will also have a comprehensive self defence suite. The avionics suite will be connected to data handling system, which will be controlled by the mission computers. The airborne surveillance platforms will have a normal radar range of 250-kilometers and 375 kilometers extended one. The AEW&C will have a 240-degree coverage and five-hour endurance time.

As of now, the programme is already three years behind time, and is likely to be delayed further, given the complexities and challenges of the radar development. The first AEW&C is expected to be handed over to Indian Air Force this year. The second platform, which has also started flight trials, would join IAF by 2017/2018.

In the meantime, DRDO has also taken up the next indigenous project, the 'India-AWACS programme' with aim of developing indigenous Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) that will have the capability to penetrate longer distances into enemy territory by way of radars and electronic warfare systems without venturing into the region physically. Consequently, in March 2015, the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) approved the development of an indigenous AWACS by the DRDO. It has allocated Rs. 5113 crores for two systems based on the A-330 aircraft which will be procured from Airbus. Eventually, eight systems will be built for use by the Air Force.  The development of indigenous AWACS 'India' is envisaged to be completed in 84 months from the date of sanction of the programme. It will take at least 5-7 years to build the first two AWACS. Subsequently, six more AWACS will be ordered when the project is mid-way. DRDO is aiming to build AWACS that will be a heavier and high endurance system, which can give a coverage of about 360 degrees as against AEW&C which is about 270 degrees only. In addition, AWACS will fly at a higher altitude and it can penetrate into the enemy territory by way of radars and EW systems to longer distances and it can be in sky for larger durations, besides giving better visibility.

Foreign Procurements: Meanwhile, over and above the indigenous programmes, to fill the gap owing to failure/delay in indigenous programme, India went ahead with foreign procurement and signed a tripartite contract in 2004 with Israel and Russia for developing the 'Israeli Phalcon radar based AWACS mounted on the Russian IL-78 platform'. The total deal size was $1.1 billion (Rs 5500 crore) and the first AWACS was delivered in 2009 with the third in 2011. The fleet of three AWACS uses significantly advanced technologies such as electronically steered phased array radar, IFF, C3I, ESM, data-link, and elements of SIGINT, COMINT, and ELINT. The Phalcon system is built around an ELTA EL/M-2075 AESA L-band radar, and adds electronic and communications intelligence gathering (ELINT and COMINT) capabilities. The system can also receive transmissions from other air and ground stations, and uses sensor fusion to provide a complete picture of the battle space out to several hundred kilometers. The Israeli Phalcon AEW System has coverage of 333 km and can deal with 500 targets in track while scan mode, in comparison to indigenous AEW, which will have a normal radar range of 250-km and a 375-km extended one, with a 240-degree coverage and five-hour endurance time and can track more than 500 targets simultaneously.

Further, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) seeking delay in indigenous AWACS development programme has activated the case for 'two additional “follow-on” Phalcon radars to be mounted on Russian IL-76 aircraft' having a range of over 400-km and 360-degree. The tripartite deal worth $661 Million with Israel and Russia has being given clearance by the CCS in March 2016. The additional AWACS (A-50I PHALCON) equipment and radars will be installed on are offering the IL-476 as the platform enabling India to detect any aerial threat more effectively than ground-based radars. The latest version of IAI system includes a series of software and hardware improvements over previous ones. It will be simultaneously be able to track flying objects within a radius of 800km and has a 'look-down capability' for monitoring movements on the ground or in the sea.

Apart from the IAF, the Indian Navy has also shown interest in acquiring capabilities in AWACS aircraft with an eye to strengthen its surveillance capabilities and control over the maritime zone. At present, the Navy operates the carrier-borne Kamov-31 AEW Helicopters, which were procured from Russia for early warning roles. In August 1999 the Navy ordered four Kamov Ka-31s, which entered service in April 2003. Another batch of five, ordered in February 2001, was delivered in 2005. Total cost of the nine helicopters is estimated to be around $200 Million. Ka-31s are deployed from three Talwar class guided missile frigates, as well as the Navy's shore bases. The Ka-31 features the E-801M Oko (Eye) pulse-Doppler phased array early warning radar. Typical range against a surface ship is more than 100-200 km (60-125 miles) while the radar can monitor fighter sized aircraft at up to 150 km (95 miles). The radar can track 20-40 targets simultaneously, making it an important part of navy operations since surface vessels' radar coverage is limited by the curvature of the earth.

However, the Ka-31 has not lived up to the Indian Navy's expectations; with a short loiter time (2.5 hours) and technical defects. This in turn made Navy to consider procurement of fixed wing AEW aircraft for its future aircraft carriers and issued a RFI for 'four carrier-based AEW&C aircraft' under 'Buy' category in mid 2010 with a possible option of more. The RFI specified that the aircraft must be able to carry out airborne surveillance, detect and track both airborne and surface contacts, control air interceptions and air strikes. It should be capable of providing an integrated air and surface picture of the area under surveillance in adverse weather conditions and in dense electronic environment. Finally, it should be capable of being used as a command and control platform. Secondary requirements include being able to undertake maritime patrol and limited search and rescue missions. The aircraft must be capable of operating in the tropical conditions prevailing in the Indian Ocean region.   Northrop Grumman is one of the confirmed contenders which has proposed its E-2D Advanced Hawkeye, which was cleared for export by the United States government. The RFP timeline of this programme is uncertain.

Market Size

The induction of Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) has given IAF much needed ability used to carry out surveillance, including over ground targets and frequently perform Command and Control, Battle Management (C2BM) functions while aerial refueling capability helps enhance the radius of action of the combat fleet. India has got long coastline of more than 7,000 kms, more than 14,000 kms of land border and two major island groups for which Indian Air Force has got only three Early Warning Systems as of now, with two smaller ones being indigenously developed by DRDO are in pipeline. Considering the vast operational requirements of the country, from all three services perspective, five seems to be an inadequate number. The minimum operational requirement would be around an availability of eight aircraft for which the total holdings should be around twelve. Further, in total, the Indian Air Force is said to be looking at acquiring up to 20 additional systems, in addition to the existing systems and around 10 are required by the Indian Navy on different platforms and with different capabilities. These AWACS are required for specific areas and will be part of network-centric operations, and are expected to be able to provide adequate coverage of specified areas.

Considering the on-going and future programmes and also the growing requirements of the AWACs by the Armed Forces, it is anticipated that India will be spending approx. over $5-10 billion on AWACs systems with the emphasis on the defence services becoming network centric. Some of the programmes are specified in the Table.

Conclusion

Having a robust fleet of AWACS is paramount for a nation like India with a great deal of territory to cover as these are designed to detect incoming missiles and aircrafts while also additionally directing air defence fighters during combat operations against enemy planes. A beginning has been made with several foreign and indigenous procurement in pipeline, however, these needs to implemented on fast track coupled with going ahead with more procurements to meet the requirements of the Armed Forces. The immediate requirement of AWACS is 7 for the IAF and 4 for the Navy. Further, to be noted that in comparison to neighbors Pakistan and China, Indian Armed Forces lag far behind. Pakistan has at present four Swedish SAAB Early Warning Aircrafts and is also in the process of acquiring four more from China called the Karakoram Eagle ZDK-03 AWACS. China already has more than twenty such Early Warning aircrafts.

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