The tripartite effort involving Russia, Israel and India finally produced a platform designated as the A-50EI that now serves as a force multiplier for the IAF
One notable area in which the Indian Air Force (IAF), currently the fourth largest in the world, had been deficient for over seven decades after it came into being, was in respect of airborne surveillance capability for area air defence. This notable weakness was finally addressed, but only partially, with the induction of three A-50EI, Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft from Russia in the period 2009 to 2011.
Having been almost totally dependent initially on the then Soviet Union for the requirement of military hardware in the cold war era and later, on Russia, it was only natural that the IAF should turn to the traditional source in the latter part of the nineties to explore the possibility of obtaining a fleet of AWACS aircraft. At that point in time, the only platform Russia had to offer was the A-50 AWACS. This system was based essentially on the IL-76 heavy lift transport aircraft that had been operational as a part of the transport fleet of the IAF since the mid 1980s. The IAF was quite comfortable with the IL-76 as it already had the infrastructure, the technical manpower trained for this platform and adequate operational experience on the aircraft.
For the AWACS role, in Russia, the IL-76 had been integrated with Russian radar mounted in a rotodome, sensors and related avionics. In search of a better radar and sensors as well as the related avionics, the IAF explored Western sources and zeroed in on the Phalcon Radar from M/s Elta of Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI). Even though both the IL-76 platform and the Phalcon radar were proven systems in their own respective domains, their integration was a new exercise akin to a new development project. It is for this reason that the time lines stipulated initially for the project for the delivery of the first aircraft in 2007, slipped by two years and by three-and-a-half years before the third aircraft arrived in India. In any case, the tripartite effort involving Russia, Israel and India finally produced a platform designated as the A-50EI that now serves as a force multiplier for the IAF. This fleet is expected to play a crucial role in a net-centric war of the future.
With a radar detection range of over 400 km the Elta EL/M-2075 AESA L-band radar mounted on the A-50EI provides a coverage of 360 degrees.
The IAF had put forward a proposal to acquire two more Phalcon equipped platforms to increase the AWACS fleet size to five. Although this proposal had been approved by the government, but as per reports appearing in the media in 2012, the proposal apparently ran into some difficulty on account of “sharp cost escalation.” The matter has therefore been in limbo since the delivery of the third aircraft to the IAF in 2011.
The report in the media also stated that following the experience gained by the Indian Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) in the execution of the indigenous Airborne Early Warning and Control System (AEW&CS) project, a move was underway in the Ministry of Defence (MOD) to embark on the development of an indigenous AWACS aircraft. The plan was for the DRDO to initially develop a system with an Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar that would provide a 360-degree coverage. The indigenously developed radar would be mounted on a large aircraft such as the IL-76, Boeing 767 or the Airbus 330. The projection included initial production of two such systems followed by possibly another four. This could be another reason as to why procurement of additional A-50EI appears to have been put on the back burner. Also, there is a strong possibility that the proposal to acquire two more A-50EI could be abandoned altogether.
Effort at Indigenisation
The decision on March 28, 2015, by the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) on the indigenous development of the AWACS aircraft should remove all doubts specifically about the induction of AWACS aircraft in the IAF in the future as also the route the new government intends to follow in general in the procurement of defence hardware. The DAC has approved the proposal for indigenous development of the radar and sensors by the Indian Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) to be mounted on the Airbus A330 that would be procured from abroad. The Airbus A330 is twin-jet transport aircraft with a large cabin volume and has proved to be a reliable platform in the global airline industry. This aircraft is ideally suited to be converted into an AWACS platform.
Efforts earlier on by the DRDO to develop an indigenous AEW&CS aircraft, through a project code named as ‘Airawat,’ had suffered a serious setback. Being a much smaller platform compared to the AWACS, an Avro aircraft transferred from the IAF was being used as a test bed for development flights. Unfortunately, in January 1999, the aircraft disintegrated during a test flight and crashed killing all eight persons on board including the four scientists and engineers who were critical to the project. Later in 2004, the project was reactivated with a new platform, the twinengine Embraer 145 Executive Jet, three of which have been procured from Embraer of Brazil. The first of these equipped with the radar and sensors developed by the Bengaluru-based Centre for Airborne Systems (CABS), a laboratory under the DRDO, is currently undergoing trials in Bengaluru and is expected to enter service with the IAF in June this year. The other two are to follow soon after. The DRDO-developed homegrown AEW&CS system will have a normal radar range of 250 kilometres which can be extended to 375 kilometres. With a fixed Active Antenna Array Unit, the AEW&CS will provide a 240-degree coverage and five-hour airborne time when on a mission. The AEW&CS will augment the aerial surveillance capability of the AWACS and support the IAF in offensive strike missions and assist forces in the tactical battle area.
Pakistan’s Eye in the Sky
After having been rejected several times under Sweden’s military export policies, Pakistan’s efforts to induct and AEW&CS aircraft finally succeeded in June 2006 when it finally clinched a deal with Saab of Sweden for the supply of four of the Argus Turboprop AEW&CS aircraft. This system was the Saab 2000 regional twin-turboprop airliner fitted with the Ericsson PS-890 Erieye fixed active array radar with an electronically scanned antenna. This radar has a scan angle of 160 degrees on each side providing a total scan angle of 320 degrees. At its standard operating altitude of 20,000 feet, the radar can scan up to a distance of 450 km which exceeds that of the Indian Embraer 145 AEW&CS aircraft. The Erieye radar can detect a fighter aircraft size target up to about 330 km. Being powered by jet engines, the Embraer 145 AEW&CS aircraft can fly faster and climb to greater altitudes compared with the turboprop Saab 2000.
Apart from the Saab 2000 Erieye AEW&CS aircraft, in the first week of March this year, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) has also inducted the first Chinese-built ZDK-03 Karakoram Eagle AWACS aircraft equipped with a Chinese AESA radar and the system is configured to Pakistan’s specifications. The platform, which was apparently developed specifically for Pakistan, is a variant of the Shaanxi Y-8 which is the Chinese version of the Russian four turboprop engine Antonov An-12 aircraft. This aircraft at one point in time was the heavy-lift component of the transport fleet of the IAF and was retired from service three decades ago.
The PAF signed a contract in 2008 with China Electronics Technology Corporation for the joint development of the ZDK-03 AWACS aircraft. The radar was designed by the Research Institute of Electronic Technology at Nanjing. Chinese support to Pakistan in this area is symbolic of the special all-weather strategic partnership between the two nations. Compared with the Swedish Saab 2000 AEW&CS aircraft, the ZDK-03 is a much more sophisticated platform and can remain airborne for a much longer period than the Saab 2000 and can look deeper in enemy territory. As of now, the PAF has placed orders for four of these platforms. As things stand, the number of AWACS and AEW&CS aircraft on the inventory is slated to be larger than that of the IAF, a point that the IAF needs to take note of.
In the 1990s, China had entered into an agreement with Israel for the supply of the A-50I AWACS aircraft, i.e. the IL-76 platform fitted with the Elta Phalcon system, a programme that was strikingly similar to that of India. However, under pressure from the US, in July 2000, Israel backed out from the deal leaving China in the lurch. In the meantime, China was already embarked on a programme for indigenous development of the KJ-2000 Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) Radar also known as Phased Array Radar. The development of the radar was completed by 2001. However, in the interim, China procured four A-50 AWACS aircraft from Russia. But these A-50 aircraft were equipped with the KJ-200, a radar system of Chinese origin that had been developed for and integrated earlier with the Chinese Y-8 (derivative of An-12). This system had a much lower level of performance compared to the KJ-2000. The much smaller Y-8 based KJ-200 radar system has a range of about 300 km, can track several dozen targets and can direct up to ten fighters at a time. Imagery reaveals that the KJ-200 antenna assembly is much like the Swedish Ericsson PS-890 Erieye that the PAF has acquired. There are eleven KJ-200s in service in the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF).
The KJ-2000 AWACS based on the IL-76 platform, undertook its maiden flight in 2003 and so far, four of this system have been built and are operational with the PLAAF. This platform has a maximum speed of 850 kmph, a range of 5,500 km and an endurance of 12 hours. The KJ-2000 radar has a maximum detection range of 470 km and can track 100 targets simultaneously. Incidentally, the acronym KJ is derived from the Chinese expression Kong Jing meaning ‘Airborne Early Warning.’ Sometime in 2013, a new Chinese AWACS system was seen for the first time. This platform dubbed as the KJ-500 has a rotodome mounted on the Y-8 four engine turboprop aircraft. The KJ-500 will supplement and is expected to eventually replace the fleet of KJ-200 currently in use.