On March 29, 2015, the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC), chaired by Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, approved the development of an indigenous Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). AWACS is a radar-mounted aircraft that provides 360-degree coverage of the airspace. The DAC allocated Rs. 5,113 crore for two systems based on the A330 aircraft to be procured from Airbus. Eventually, six systems will be built for the IAF that currently operates three Israeli Phalcon-equipped Russian Il-76 aircraft. In addition, the DRDO is developing two smaller Airborne Early Warning & Control (AEW&C) Systems based on the Embraer aircraft, to be delivered this year. In all, the DAC cleared deals worth Rs. 7,400 crore.
It was in the late 1990s that the IAF decided to acquire a fleet of AWACS aircraft from abroad flagging a shift of focus from ‘force accretion’ to ‘force multipliers.’ The indigenous effort to develop such a capability though of a lower level was undertaken commencing in the 1980s by the Centre for Airborne Studies (CABS), a division of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) located at Bengaluru. The project was aimed at developing an indigenous AWACS similar to the American E-2 Hawkeye. The project codenamed ‘Airawat’ was progressing though somewhat slowly. Unfortunately, in January 1999, one of the two specially modified HS 748 Avro transport aircraft transferred from the IAF to DRDO that was being used as R&D test bed, disintegrated during a test flight and crashed in the forest of Arakonam in Tamil Nadu. Tragically, all the eight persons on board including four scientists who were critical to the project, perished in the crash. This proved to be a major setback for DRDO.
An AWACS aircraft functions as an airborne air defence direction centre which can continuously track several airborne targets and carry out simultaneous interception of the hostile targets with the help of air defence aircraft or surface to air missiles. As an airborne platform that has a coverage far greater than any ground-based air defence radar, the AWACS can look deep into enemy territory and serves as a true force multiplier. In a search for a suitable AWACS aircraft, the IAF evaluated the Russian A-50. However, not satisfied by the capability of the Russian radar system installed on the aircraft, the IAF instead opted for the Phalcon radar from Israel mounted on IL-76 aircraft procured from Russia. As per a statement in the Parliament by the then Minister of Defence, A.K. Antony, “The contract for supply of three AWACS aircraft was signed with Elta of Israel on March 5, 2004. The first and second AWACS aircraft were delivered to the IAF on May 25, 2009, and March 25, 2010, respectively as per the revised delivery schedule. The delivery of the third aircraft is planned for December 2010. Additional AWACS aircraft are planned to be procured in the 12th, 13th and 14th Plans.”
Subsequent to the statement by the Defence Minister, the third AWACS aircraft was delivered to the IAF in 2011, a few months later than scheduled. As a follow-on order to the contract with Russia and Israel in 2004, in December 2012, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) had cleared a proposal by the IAF to procure two more AWACS aircraft increasing the total fleet size to five. However, the contract is yet to be finalised. Meanwhile, the first of the three indigenous Airborne Early Warning & Control (AEW&C) System based on the Embraer 145 platform is expected to be inducted into the IAF by June this year followed by two more. As against the possible total of eight aircraft based on current procurement plans, the requirement for the IAF has been assessed as 20 to ensure effective surveillance of the entire land borders and the coastline.
Inspired by the success in developing an AEW&C system based on the Embraer 145 platform, early in the current decade, the DRDO prevailed upon the MoD to sanction the development of an indigenous AWACS, the next venture in logical progression. Like the AEW&C programme, the DRDO would build the radar and sensors to be mounted on a large platform to be procured from abroad. Of the two platforms, i.e. the Boeing 767 and the Airbus A330 that were considered, only the latter finally responded to the request for proposal. Despite the ‘Single Vendor’ situation, in the meeting on March 28, 2015, the DAC went ahead and cleared the proposal for the acquisition of two Airbus A330 aircraft from Airbus.
The plan for indigenous AWACS calls for DRDO to develop indigenously an airborne radar that will be mounted in a rotodome on top of the fuselage. Capable of electronic scanning, the radar will provide a 360-degree coverage. While DRDO has projected 2020 as the time frame in which the system would be available, the project may be affected by imponderables. The European aerospace industry has not yet developed a full-fledged AWACS and being a maiden attempt for both the DRDO and Airbus, integration of an airborne radar along with the sensors with a new platform like the Airbus A330 may take longer than envisaged. But the choice of platform is correct as the Airbus A330 with a large cabin volume is eminently suitable and will have commonality with the civil aviation fleet of Airbus aircraft operating in the country thus facilitating maintenance support from the civil MRO industry.