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Force Multipliers — Action Unfolding India

Force multipliers play an undeniable role in amplifying air dominance, demanding continued investment and strategic implementation

Issue: 02-2024By Air Marshal Anil Chopra (Retd)Photo(s): By Northrop Grumman, Indian Air Force, IAF_MCC / X, Boeing, Embraer

In real life, a lever or a wedge is considered a force multiplier, because it increases the amount of force you can place on an object. In military, a force multiplier is a factor or a combination of factors that gives personnel or weapons (or other hardware) the ability to accomplish greater feats than without it. The force multipliers are those platforms that may not be directly involved in kinetic combat but greatly support those that actually are. These could mean platforms involved in Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR), Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) and Flight Refuelling Aircraft (FRA). Even an Electronic warfare (EW) aircraft can be a force multiplier. These platforms are an important part of the Observe, Orient, Decide, Act (OODA) loop. The information flow in the concept of network-centric warfare (NCW) is also a force multiplier. The moral and perpetual optimism of the forces is a major force multiplier. Therefore, psychological and information warfare have become important. For navies, aircraft carrier is a significant force multiplier. All major air forces of the world, including Indian Air Force (IAF) invest in force multipliers to enhance operational capability. This article will restrict itself to airborne force multiplier platforms and their status in IAF.


The AEW&C is an airborne radar platform designed to detect aircraft, ships, vehicles, missiles and other incoming projectiles at long ranges, as well as performing command and control of the battlespace in aerial engagements by informing and directing friendly fighter and attack aircraft. It uses advantage of altitude to see much farther than ground-based radars. Being mobile it can move for outside area contingences. Also changing location makes it safer from attack. AEW&C units are also used to carry out aerial surveillance over ground and maritime targets, and frequently perform battle management command and control (BMC2).


AEW&C aircraft support both defensive and offensive air operations. Some navies also operate AEW&C aircraft for their warships at sea. Typical modern AEW&C have detection ranges of 400 to 600 km, and operate well out of range of most surface-to-air missiles. An AEW&C aircraft flying at 9,000 m (30,000 ft) can cover an area of 312,000 Sq. km.


United States Navy’s Northrop Grumman E-2 Hawkeye AEW&C operates from its supercarriers. The AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) is the name of the specific system installed in the E-3 and Japanese Boeing E-767 AEW&C airframes, but is often used as a general synonym for AEW&C.

The Lockheed WV and EC-121 Warning Star, were the early AEW aircraft that inducted in early 1950s and were used in Vietnam War. Later they were replaced by the AEW&C E-3 ‘Sentry’ AWACS. Soviet Tupolev Tu-126 entered service in 1965, and was later replaced by the Beriev A-50 in 1984.

The Royal Australian Air Force, Republic of Korea Air Force and the Turkish Air Force are deploying Boeing 737 AEW&C aircraft. The Swedish Air Force uses the S 100D Argus based on the Saab 340 with an Ericsson Erieye PS-890 radar. Saab also offers the Bombardier Global 6000-based GlobalEye. The Hellenic Air Force, Brazilian Air Force and Mexican Air Force use the Embraer R-99 with Ericsson Erieye PS-890 radar.

Israel has the IAI/Elta EL/M-2075 AESA Phalcon system on a Boeing 707. Later they inducted the IAI EL/W-2085 multiband radar system on Gulfstream G550 which is more capable and less expensive.


China’s KJ-2000 (five platforms) is based on the Beriev A-50 aircraft, and has been operating since 2004. China also has smaller platforms like KJ-500 (34) and KJ-200 (11). They are also developing a carrier-based AEW&C.

Pakistan Air Force (PAF) ordered six Erieye AEW equipped Saab 2000s from Sweden in 2006. The Pakistan Navy ordered three P-3 Orion aircraft equipped with Hawkeye 2000 AEW systems. China and Pakistan also signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) for the joint development of AEW&C systems.


IAF has been operating three Russian Beriev A-50I with Israeli EL/W-2090 ‘Phalcon’ radar since 2009. IAF’s attempts to acquire two additional A-50I were not successful. At one stage DRDO had proposed a more advanced AWACS with a longer range based on the Airbus A330 airframe. However it was decided that India’s DRDO will convert used Airbus A321 airliners to AEW&C platforms. Work has already begun on that count.

IAF also has DRDO ‘Netra’ AEW&C with an advanced Indian AESA radar system fitted on the Brazilian Embraer EMB-145 air frame. Netra gives 240-degree coverage, and also has air-to-air refuelling capability. IAF has plans to develop six more Netra. These systems are expected to have an enhanced performance including range and azimuth.

The first known aerial engagement with both opposing sides using Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft was in the Indian subcontinent, during the February 2019 aerial engagements between India and Pakistan, with India using A-50I Phalcon and DRDO Netra and Pakistan using the Saab 2000.


The two main aerial refuelling systems are probe-and-drogue, which is simpler to adapt to existing aircraft, and the flying boom, which offers faster fuel transfer, but requires a dedicated boom operator station.


US Air Force (USAF) had inducted over 700 Boeing KC-135 Stratotankers. Their fixed-wing aircraft use the flying boom system. The Probe-and-drogue is preferred by the British, French, Russians and Chinese among others. Some FRA such as the KC-10 Extender and Airbus A330 MRTT, use both a boom and hose-anddrogue systems. Many KC-135s are also equipped with dual under-wing hoseand-drogue attachments. The Lockheed F-35 users have the option of seeking their aircraft with refuelling configuration of either type. Some fighters such as F/A-18 and the Sukhoi Su-30 act as “buddy tankers” using an external pod loaded on an aircraft hard-point.

The Americans made extensive use of FRA during Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Israel used aerial refuelling to strike PLO targets in Tunis, Tunisia, that involved a 2,000 km flight. IAF Rafale were flown direct from France to India with mid-air refuelling enroute. IAF’s Su-30 MKI and Rafale regularly do long range missions in Indian Ocean Region using FRA.


The Boeing KC-46 Pegasus is an American FRA and strategic military transport aircraft developed from the 767 jet airliner to replace older Boeing KC-135 Stratotankers. The first aircraft was delivered to the US Air Force in January 2019. 179 Pegasus may enter USAF by 2027. Other operators include Japan, Israel, Italy and Indonesia. India too was a contender once.

The Airbus A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) is a European aerial refuelling and military transport aircraft based on the Airbus A330 airliner. 16 countries have placed orders for approximately 68 aircraft. These include UK, France, Australia, Saudi Arabia, and UAE, among others. India too was once a contender.

Russian Il-78 FRA is a version of the Il-76MD transport aircraft. With the additional fuel tanks removed, the Il-78 can serve as a regular cargo aircraft. Variants of these are operated by Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and Algeria.


The Embraer KC-390 is a medium-weight (26 tonne), multimission tactical transport aircraft with many configurations including aerial refuelling. The twin-engine jet-powered aircraft can carry 84 military personnel or be configured for MEDEVAC missions. It is the largest aircraft ever built by Embraer. Among its range of missions is aerial refuelling. The high-wing aircraft made its first flight in February 2015. Aircraft is equipped with a complete electronic warfare (EW) suite including missile warner. Offered for sale in 2019, Brazil has ordered 28 aircraft. Portugal, Austria, Czech Republic, Netherlands, Angola, Hungary, South Korea, and Chile have placed orders. Many more are in discussion. The company has been talking to India for possible 40 medium transport aircraft order.

The Israeli Air Force has a fleet of Boeing 707s equipped with a boom refuelling system similar to the KC-135. Israel has ordered Boeing KC-46 Pegasus boom refuelling.


India acquired six Russian Il-78MKI with Cobham Mk.32B air refuelling pods, which allow to refuel both Russian-built and Western aircraft. Attempts to acquire additional FRA kept getting derailed for various technical reasons. The IL-78, Airbus Multi Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) and American KC-46 were the contenders. Finally, in September 2021, it was decided to convert six pre-used Airbus A321s acquired from Air India instead. Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) entered into a memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) to convert civil aircraft to multi-mission tanker transport aircraft. Of late the KC-390 too has also become a contender. Multi role variants have the advantage of switching roles. These are preferred by countries who cannot afford large numbers. For a continental sized country like India with major threat on both borders, the numbers required could be as high as 15 to begin with. Meanwhile the IAF is considering wet/dry lease of a few FRA to meet its emergent requirements.


Many countries including India have had dedicated electronic warfare aircraft to act as cooperative or escort jamming platforms. These had powerful jammers to mask or shield other penetrating aircraft. The Antonov An-12BK-PPS, Antonov An-26REP, Sukhoi Su-24MP, Tupolev Tu-16RM-2, Yakovlev Yak-28PP and Mil Mi-8PP of the Soviet Union. Ilyushin Il-22PP of Russia. Boeing EA-18G Growler, Northrop Grumman EA-6B Prowler, Douglas EA-3 Skywarrior, Douglas EB-66 Destroyer, Douglas EF-10B Skyknight, Lockheed EC-130H, and General Dynamics/Grumman EF-111A Raven of United States. Tornado ECR (Germany/Italy). Embraer R-99 of Brazil), Denel TP1 Oryx EW of South Africa. Shaanxi Y-8EW, Shaanxi Y-9-GX11, Xi’an HD-6, Shenyang J-15D, Shenyang J-16D, and Chengdu J-10D of China. IAI 202B Arava of Israel). Kawasaki EC-1 and RC-2 of Japan. IAF’s 35 squadron was equipped with dedicated EW Canberra and MiG-21 aircraft. Later Escort jammers were inducted with Mirage 2000 aircraft. There are reports that IAF will receive approval for three A319 based SIGINT and COMJAM aircraft to be developed in India. Pakistan continues to operate three modified Dassault Falcon 20 in electronic warfare role.

With advances in technology, and need for protecting all aircraft in both offensive and defensive operations, self-protection jammers and more advanced EW suites came up on all aircraft. The Thales/MBDA SPECTRA is a fully internal electronic warfare system on the Rafale aircraft that incorporates radar warning, laser warning and Missile Approach Warning for threat detection plus a phased array radar jammer and a decoy dispenser for threat countering.


India is a continental sized country with threat in the north and west and also from the Oceans. Indian AEW&C and FRA have thus to cover very large area. The current 3+3 AEW&C and six FRA are too inadequate. Most of the analysts have been suggesting 10 large and 10 small AEW&C and 15 FRA. Finally, the work has commenced in this direction in all earnest.

India’s Mahindra Group and Brazil’s Embraer have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to fulfil the acquisition of the C-390 Millennium multi-mission aircraft by the IAF in its upcoming Medium Transport Aircraft (MTA) procurement project. C-390 will be the contender.

Electronic Warfare will continue to play greater role in times to come. There has been a debate on whether the IAF requires dedicated EW aircraft. Once the fighter squadron numbers come up, and the FRA and AEW&C requirements are met then it may be considered.

Force Multipliers are important assets of any air force. Despite IAF being the fourth largest air force of the world, it is still quite behind in numbers of force multipliers vis-à-vis the top three nations USA, Russia, and China. As India heads for the third slot of largest economies, more investments should flow for Capital acquisitions. Significant of these must go to force multipliers.