Providing real-time intelligence, command and control to maintain air superiority and to enable surveillance of borders is the need of the hour. Though, a beginning has been made, with foreign and indigenous procurement in the pipeline, however, these needs to be implemented on fast track to meet the urgent requirements.
The Airborne Early Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft has emerged as the “Eye in the Sky” because of its credibility by providing real-time intelligence, command and control to maintain air superiority and to enable surveillance of borders. 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.
IAF currently has three AWACS, with Israeli Phalcon radar systems mounted on Russian IL-76 heavy-lift aircraft, which were inducted in 2009-2011 under a $1.1 billion ($600 Million for three Phalcon Radar Systems and $500 billion for three aircrafts) deal inked in 2004. Again in 2016, Indian Ministry cleared purchase of two additional Phalcon radar systems mounted on Russian IL-76, at a cost about $1.1 billion, for which the price negotiations are going on. The systems are significantly boosting the effectiveness of both offensive and defensive operations. Its superior detection and interception capability, connected to fighters and surface-to-air missile systems, are the remarkable force-multipliers. Additionally, the system can also monitor troop build-ups or activity at airbases and can detect incoming cruise missiles and aircraft from over 400-km away in all-weather conditions.
DRDO AWACS (Netra)
DRDO is working on AWACS platform called “Netra” and another “Indigenous AWACS” project. The project to develop AWACS for Indian Air Force started in 2003. In 2008, DRDO had purchased three Embraer EMB-145 aircraft from Brazil and customized them for serving are air-borne radar system. India and Brazil signed a deal reportedly worth $ 210 million for the supply of three aircraft by 2014. This deal includes a comprehensive logistic package that entails training, technical support, supply of spare parts and ground support equipment. The first Netra AWACS was inducted in February 2017 is now undergoing operational test-runs after initial operational clearance, while the second is awaiting final operational clearance. It is mounted on a Brazilian Embraer-145 jet- having a range of around 200 km and can track area within 240 degrees of its sides at any given point of time. The Airborne Surveillance System is a game changer in air warfare. The AEW&C System is a system populated with state-of-the art Active Electronically Scanned Radar, Secondary Surveillance Radar, Electronic and Communication Counter Measures, LOS (Line of Sight) and beyond LOS data link, voice communication system and self protection suite, built on an Emb-145 platform, having an air to air refueling capability to enhance surveillance time. Complex tactical software has been developed for fusion of information from the sensors, to provide the air situation picture along with intelligence to handle identification/classification threat assessment. Battle management functions are built in house to work as a network centric system of Integrated Air Command & Control System (IACCS) node.
Out of three, two AWACS systems would be handed over to IAF and third will remain positioned at the Centre for Airborne Systems, Bangalore (CABS - a DRDO laboratory) for research and development.
To leverage the experience and expertise gained in the design and development of Airborne Early Warning & Control Systems, a project proposal for indigenous development of AWACS India by DRDO has been approved by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) on 12th February, 2013. The development of AWACS (India) is envisaged to be completed tentatively by 2024-25 from the date of formal sanction of the Program. Under the project, initially, two such AWACS aircraft will be developed, with four more to follow subsequently. Though the Defence Ministry has approved the Rs 5,113 crore project in March 2015, under which 360-degree coverage indigenous AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array) radars are to be mounted on Airbus A-330 wide-body jets, the contract is yet to be inked. Six more AWACS are likely to be ordered once the project takes concrete shape, with structural and electrical changes to the A-330 aircraft to fit the radar domes on the top.
Indian Air Force requires more than 20 AWACS platforms, as current inventory is not enough to cover the eastern and western sectors during offensive operations. The total number of AWACS platform that has been already in making comes to 14 numbers. Therefore, Indian Air Force still requires more such platforms to safeguard its territory. 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.
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.
In 2010, Navy issued a RFI for 'four carrier-based AEW&C aircraft' under 'Buy' category 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 have proposed its E-2D Advanced Hawkeye, which was cleared for export by the United States government. Presently, the deal is still in limbo from the Indian side.
The AWACS systems are the eye and ear of the Armed Forces in the sky. Hence, making it, the most crucial item in the procurement list. Indian Armed Forces requires over 20 AWACS. Apart from public sector involvement, there is an opportunity for the private sector as well. DRDO, who is the only developer, is booked till 2024-25; additionally there is a huge requirement for the spare parts for these platforms. A beginning has been made with several foreign and indigenous procurements in pipeline, however, these needs to implement on fast track coupled with going ahead with more procurement to meet the requirements of the Armed Forces.