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Netra — Eyes in the Sky

Indian AEW&C Platforms to Bolster Network-Centric Air Operations

Issue: 02-2024By Group Captain D.K. Pandey (Retd)Photo(s): By SP Guide Pubns

India is actively working towards developing and deploying modern indigenous airborne early-warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft, often referred to as “Eyes in the Sky”. This would significantly improve its surveillance and detection capabilities.

The AEW&C is a highly sought-after force multiplier that is highly valued by military forces around the globe. Modern AEW&C/AWACS systems comprise various sensors, communications, and computing systems, contributing to their comprehensive Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities. The platform, in dense airspace, will minimise the situational awareness fog. Hence, it enhances the direction and interception capabilities of the friendly fighters during air combat with enemy jets.

The Radar, the primary sensor of any airborne system, is mainly valued for its degree of capability to detect moving targets at long distances in all weather conditions and present a clutterfree picture. DRDO has successfully developed a fully indigenous primary radar system for the AEW&C system. This remarkable achievement showcases the country’s expertise in designing and manufacturing the complete system, including its electronics and antenna array. The critical electronics, such as the Transmit Receive module, etc, have been meticulously crafted, developed by DRDO and produced by an industry partner.


Established in 1985, the Airborne Surveillance, Warning and Control (ASWAC) Centre was tasked with exploring the potential of creating an Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) in the country. In 1991, it evolved into the CABS, focusing on designing and developing AWACS systems. CABS then accepted the task of transforming an Avro Aircraft into a compact Airborne Surveillance Platform (ASP). The effort to develop this system was a resounding success, with the successful development and demonstration of critical systems such as primary radar and data links. Unfortunately, the experiment ended with a tragic accident, leaving CABS in despair.

The AEW&C Programme, approved by the Government in 2004, experienced a rollercoaster of emotions, with moments of excitement and despair and a series of ups and downs that could rival the plot of a thrilling book. The design teams at CABS (Centre for Airborne Systems) and DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organisation); work centres at LRDE (Electronics and Radar Development Establishment), DLRL (Defence Electronics Research Laboratory), DEAL (Defence Electronics Applications Laboratory), and DARE (Defence Avionics Research Establishment) were effectively assisted by the IAF (Indian Air Force) Project Team at CABS, CEMILAC (Centre for Military Airworthiness and Certification), DGAQA (Directorate General of Aeronautical Quality Assurance), DRDO HQ, IAF HQ, and Squadrons, as well as ASTE (Aircraft and Systems Testing Establishment), among others. They collaborated closely to elevate the country’s status to that of a league of countries by developing the capabilities for Airborne Surveillance systems.

India is actively pursuing the acquisition of advanced variants of AEW&C aircraft, such as Netra Mark-1A and Mark-2, which promise improved detection range, resolution, and tracking capabilities, in response to the urgent operational needs of the Indian Air Force amidst regional conflicts.

Collaborative efforts led to the initiation of the development of an indigenous Airborne Early Warning and Control System (AEW&C). The project involved the creation of three AEW&C systems, which included an Active Electronically Scanned Antenna Primary Radar (PR), an Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) system, and an ELINT and SIGINT system. These systems were to be installed on the Embraer-145 executive jet platform. The system was designed to have complete net-centric capability with the use of multiple LOS and Satellite Communication Data links. It also includes an onboard mission computer that allows the operator to perform information fusion and mission control and interact with reconfigurable operator consoles. This enables the operator to utilise the capabilities of the Netra effectively.

The inaugural Airborne Early Warning and Control System developed indigenously was formally handed over to the IAF on February 14, 2017, in the presence of a worldwide gathering at the Aero India Exhibition. The ceremony was memorable for CABS, DRDO and IAF, the developers, producers and users. The AEW&C made its inaugural flight at the Republic Day Fly Past on January 26, 2017. The designated call sign for the Airborne AEW&C system was Netra. The announcer proclaimed the name of the flight as Indian AEW&C Netra as it gracefully soared past the main podium. This name has become closely associated with the system ever since.


The onboard ‘Intercept Control and Battle Management’ (IC&BM) system is a valuable tool for Air Battle Managers (Fighter Controllers) to achieve and maintain air superiority in a contested air space. It assists the fighter controller in evaluating airborne targets, implementing tactical measures, eliminating these targets, guiding fighters on offensive strike missions, and safely returning aircraft to an airbase. The IC&BM module also explores the resilience and susceptibility of interceptors when faced with various threats. The Intercept Control generates a range of interception options for the operator to consider when deploying fighter aircraft to counter a specified threat.

The IC&BM consists of five main functionalities: Advanced Threat Evaluation (ATE), Battle Management, Weapon Assignment, Intercept Control (IC), Guidance and Recovery.

The Operator Work Station (OWS) is the interface between the operators and the Mission Systems on board the AEW&C system. The CABS OWS system was created internally to offer operators a real-time view of the comprehensive tactical air situation on a robust and user-friendly Human Machine Interface (HMI). This allows operators to enhance their situational awareness of the monitored region.

The Ground Exploitation Station (GES) serves as a vital interface between the AEW&C and the IACCS, facilitating seamless communication and coordination. The real-time Recognisable Air Situation Picture (RASP) generated onboard AEW&C is transmitted to the GES, which is connected to the IACCS through an interface unit to distribute tactical information to the decision-makers on the ground. In a similar vein, the directive from the IACCS to the AEW&C is channelled through GES.

Once the sensor data is on the IACCS network, it ensures that the information is readily accessible from any location in India. GES, with its modular design, is incredibly convenient for transportation and deployment. Several GES can be simultaneously operational, allowing for real-time monitoring of sensor data from various locations.

Network-Centric operations (NCO) are lifelines of highly dynamic and lethal battlefields. NCO enabled enhanced and real-time situational awareness of the war theatre to enable prompt decision-making. The fact that the IAF has thoroughly incorporated its Netra (AEW&C) and Phalcon (AWACS) into its integrated air command and control system is a significant factor. The ongoing expansion of this fully automated air defence network, which includes data linkages, aims to incorporate a diverse range of military and civilian radars in order to fill surveillance gaps in Indian airspace.


The operational urgency to acquire additional AEW&C aircraft is acute for the IAF for the aerial conflict. The persistent conflict with China in the eastern region of Ladakh has emphasised the necessity even more. The experience with Netra Mk-1 was encouraging, as all supports were made available promptly. The operational productivity increased significantly. The IAF collaborates with the DRDO and other agencies to address maintenance needs promptly. The Netra Mark-1 has demonstrated its effectiveness in enhancing India’s airborne surveillance capabilities, and its successful implementation showcases the country’s advancements in defence technology. The IAF is vigorously pursuing the acquisition of six Mark-1A and six Mark-2 variants of the Netra AEW&C aircraft.

Netra Mark-I. An Embraer-145 executive jet platform, with an endurance of four hours, powers Netra Mark-I. It has EL/M-2050 AESA Radar AESA-based Primary Radar, Identification Friend or Foe (IFF), also known as SSR (Secondary Surveillance Radar) and Electronic Support Measures (ESM) sensors. Numerous line-of-sight (LOS) and satellite communication data lines, as well as the onboard and mission computers, provide the system with complete net-centric capabilities. For voice communication, it works with the C-Band Data Link (CBDL), the Ku-Band SATCOM data link (KBDL), and the V/UHF communication connection. Although specific cost figures are not publicly divulged, the Netra Mark-1 is generally considered cost-effective compared to procuring similar systems from foreign vendors.


Netra MK-1A. The platform used for Mk-1A is ERJ-145LR. It has EL/W-2085 AESA Radar AESA-based Primary Radar AESA Radar. The additional sensors onboard are electronic intelligence (ELINT) and signal intelligence (SIGINT). Its endurance is five hours. It is likely to be available for IAF in the year 2025.

Netra MK-2. Provides significantly improved detection range, resolution, and tracking capabilities compared to the mechanically scanned radar used in Mark-1 and Mark-1A. Mark-2 is to be equipped with DRDO’s Uttam, advanced AESA radar, having enhanced detection capabilities of more than 500 km. It has an operational ceiling of 40,000 ft and an endurance of 8 hours. It is likely to be developed and delivered in 2026-27. It will provide integrated data from ELINT and the Missile Approach Warning Systems (MAWS) to enhance threat detection and situational awareness for decision-making. It will be equipped with imaging systems, Electro-Optical / Infra-Red (EO/IR), that use both visible and infrared sensors to provide total situational awareness during both day and night, as well as in low light conditions. It is to be mounted on second-hand Airbus-321 planes bought from Air India. It will be able to conduct operations for eight hours. It is likely to have its first flight trials in the year 2025.


The indigenous AEW&C system needs to be designed and developed in accordance with the operational environment to enable uninterrupted, efficient, and effective operations. The developers and operation team must be in sync for better system designs, necessitating consistent R&D. The timebound brainstorming among stakeholders for innovative operations architect is essential. Cohesive efforts will only make the system user-friendly and productive. The R&D processes and exploration of other dimensions of operations require the attention of all regulators. The factors that need attention are appended below:

Invest in resources towards research and development of critical technologies, including advanced sensors, airframes, and software, in order to reduce dependence on foreign suppliers and bolster ongoing initiatives for indigenous development. The domestic defence industry may benefit from more private sector participation, academia-industry synergy, and regulatory simplification to improve efficiency and innovation. Strategic collaborations involve sharing technology and creating resource-integrated projects with friendly states. It is recommended to adopt a phased approach, in which one begins by developing fundamental skills using easily accessible instruments and progressively progresses to producing everything indigenously. Establish domestic testing and certification facilities and restructure.


AEW&C Netra has demonstrated its capabilities in real-world operations in Balakot, and two Netra Systems have come together as a key component of the Airborne Surveillance Systems of the IAF. In view of the dynamism of regional geopolitics and threat perception, the development and production of AEW&C on a war footing to meet urgent IAF needs merits consideration.

The author has conducted as well as audited AWACS operations