India Renews Indigenous AWACS Efforts

 - March 28, 2019, 10:46 AM
The Indian Air Force operates two of the Netra AEW&CS aircraft based on the Embraer EMB-145 regional jet airframe. (photo: Neelam Mathews)

Recent skirmishes with neighboring Pakistan have resulted in India’s military focus returning to a delayed program for an Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS). The Indian Air Force (IAF) strike on a Pakistani terrorist training camp at Balakot in February included 12 Mirage 2000s supported by a fleet of other warplanes, including India’s two home-grown Netra (eyes) AEW&CS (airborne early warning and control system) aircraft that are based on an Embraer EMB-145 platform.

India’s $300 million deal for three Brazilian-built EMB-145s in 2008 was part of a Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) program to scale up the IAF’s capabilities. The Embraer platform deal included structural changes and integration of Indian radars on the aircraft, and a logistics package of training, technical support, spare parts and ground support equipment from the Brazilian OEM.

The third EMB-145 platform has been retained by DRDO “for upgrades,” M.S Easwaran, director of the Centre for Airborne Systems told AIN. The first AWACS was handed over by the DRDO to the IAF during Aero India 2017 in Bangalore. Easwaran added that the initial years of development had been “a period of self-learning.”

DRDO's A330-based AWACS aircraft would have a triangular-array radar installation in a fixed radome. (photo: Neelam Mathews)

Six next-generation longer-endurance AWACS aircraft based on the Airbus A330 platform were proposed years ago and received approval and clearance in principle. They are awaiting a final nod from the ministry of defense. Larger and offering a higher operating altitude than the EMB-145s, the first two A330 platforms are part of the first phase of the program and will be fitted with an indigenous radar. Based on negotiations related to the first two A330s, four additional A330s are in the pipeline. Easwaran said work on “critical technology for the A330 AWACS had started,” and he hopes “it will be cleared in a few months.”

Meanwhile, S. Christopher, the retired chairman of DRDO and director of the Centre for Airborne Systems, told AIN that the radome and the antenna for the Netra had been developed within the country. “We believe the rest of things can move fast provided sanction is given,” he added.

Challenges could arise in adapting the current radar system and moving from a 24-tonne to a 200-tonne platform, with the radar expected to require more power and endurance. The Embraer Netra system employs a two-sided “sword” antenna array, whereas the larger aircraft would have a triangular antenna array.

Grossly under-equipped in AWACS capability, the IAF presently operates three Israeli A-50EI Phalcon systems mounted on Russian Ilyushin Il-76 heavy-lift aircraft. While the requirement is for at least two more, the Il-76 platform’s reliability and spares are posing a problem. DRDO’s Airbus C295-based AEW&C concept remains in the initial planning stages and has not been formally proposed to the government.

Three Beriev/IAI A-50EI systems were delivered to India. The system marries an Il-76 airframe with an Elta Phalcon radar, which also employs a fixed triangular antenna aray. (photo: Indian Air Force)