In years to come, the credibility of the IAF, and how it acquits itself in combat, will depend heavily on its force multipliers—more so, in how precisely it conducts air operations
Future historians might be tempted to make a distinction between the Indian Air Force (IAF) before and after May 28. On that day, an Il-76 Phalcon Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS)—the first of three such aircraft on order—was inducted into the IAF, marking a paradigm shift in the punch of the service. Just how precious is this baby? Well, the IAF is now the only air force with such advanced capability in much of Asia. China has coveted AWACS capability for decades, but having been shrewdly denied it by the US as well as by Russia, Beijing has succeeded to some extent in developing its own systems. However, the performance of a home-grown Chinese AWACS is unlikely to match that of the Phalcon.
Pakistan, hanging on China’s coattails, has reportedly signed a $278-million (Rs 1,330 crore) deal for four Chinese systems, perhaps the King-Jing 2000 (KJ-2000), for delivery 2011-2012. This system is roughly comparable to the Ericsson FRS-890 Erieye, mounted on the Saab-2000, on order from Sweden, and will not significantly add to its potential. For now, the IAF reigns supreme.
Better Machines for Bigger Roles
A steady dwindling of combat fleet over the last decade culminated with the IAF plumbing the depths around 2006-2007, when the number of squadrons it could deploy dipped to 29 against the earlier strength of 39.5. Further downslide appears to have been arrested, due mainly to the increased induction of Su-30MKI aircraft. Induction of the much-delayed light combat aircraft, the medium multi-role combat aircraft and the joint Indo-Russian Sukhoi Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft, should boost the IAF strength to 42 squadrons by the end of the 13th Plan (2022), according to Defence Minister A.K. Antony.
The IAF’s responsibilities are also burgeoning with the force taking on extra-regional role. Aware that such a task would require prior planning and specialised resources, it is determined to invest in the necessary weapon systems. The modernisation of the economy has its own imperatives, which extend even to the procurement and development of weapons systems. For instance, it does not seem sensible to grab whatever Russian aircraft is on offer, and make do with it, as was done so often in the past. Besides, blossoming US-India relationship means that the best in technology is no longer out of bounds. From now on, force multipliers, like the AWACS, will play a major role in the modernisation and combat plans of the IAF.
AWACS: Force multiplication, in military speak, is a combination of attributes or advantages which make a given force more effective than another of comparable size. AWACS, the mother of all force multipliers, has been conceptualised as a platform for surveillance, command and control and battle management, affording it a pivotal role in air-land battles. The IAF’s new AWACS comprises the Israeli EL/M-2075 Phalcon radar mounted on a highly upgraded Russian Ilyushin-76TD aircraft fitted with PS-90 engines. The aircraft and its powerful engines can cope with the hot and humid climate of India. AWACS will operate under the banner of 50 Squadron IAF, from Agra, under Central Air Command. Its operations, however, are likely to be controlled by Air Headquarters directly. The second and third AWACS are coming next year. The US was a key player since it permitted Israel to go ahead with the contract. A similar Israeli deal with China was nipped in the bud.
Claimed to be among the most advanced such systems available, the Phalcon uses L-Band Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar. A unique fusion system continuously cross-relates the data gathered by all sensors. If one sensor reports detection, the system automatically initiates an active search by the complementary sensors. This obviates the need to deploy specialised aircraft for each separate task—another example of force multiplication. AWACS will enable IAF aircraft, like the Jaguars and Mirage-2000s, to execute effective counter-air and offensive air support missions by guiding the aircraft precisely to their targets, should such guidance be necessary. The aircraft would also be forewarned if enemy fighters attempt to intercept them. Conversely, the IAF would have enhanced capability to prevent counter strikes. Enemy aircraft would be picked up soon after getting airborne and kept under continuous surveillance. If their intentions appear hostile, frontline IAF fighters, like the Sukhoi-30MKIs and the MiG-29s, would be scrambled to intercept these and continuously fed beyond visual range data of their precise tracks through a direct link. This would avoid wasteful missions, like combat air patrol.
The Phalcon is limited to six hours on station. Allowing for downtime, perhaps six AWACS would be necessary to patrol the western borders. The IAF’s total requirement, therefore, could be as high as 18 to 20 aircraft—a tall order considering that the initial deal for three AWACS, inked in 2004, cost $1.1 billion (Rs 5,270 crore) for the sophisticated electronic equipment, plus $500 million (Rs 2,395 crore) for the aircraft.
In 2004, following many setbacks, an indigenous mini-AWACS project was also revived under the Defence Research and Development Organisation. Expected to cost around Rs 1,800 crore ($380 million), it will feature an AESA radar, instead of a rotating one, mounted on an Embraer EMB-145 aircraft. The first EMB-145 is scheduled for delivery in 2011, while the complete system could be flight tested from 2012, with operational capability estimated in 2013. The IAF is hoping to obtain around 20 such systems.
Acquiring AWACS is just the beginning. The IAF has to train its elite strike and air defence forces to fully exploit AWACS capability. Further, it is clear that the remarkable success of AWACSenabled air forces in various operations in the recent past was achieved against adversaries without the capability to neutralise it. The IAF, having gained a head start, must be prepared for such an eventuality wherein the opponent acquires matching systems and achieves ‘AWACS symmetry’.
Tethered Aerostats: The IAF acquired two Israeli EL/M-2083 Aerostat radars in 2004-2005 for $145 million (Rs 695 crore), and is planning to deploy a total of six. Perhaps 13 would be needed to cover all the borders. The tethered balloon can ascend and hover up to an altitude of 4 km for as long as 30 days. Data gathered by its phased array radar is transmitted to a central air defence centre where it is collated to maintain an extended and comprehensive air-situation picture. The system is specially designed to detect hostile aircraft at low level, at long range. Each system is reportedly capable of providing 3-D coverage over a radius of 400 km—roughly equivalent to the coverage of 30 ground-based low-looking radars. Force multiplication, once again. The most cost-effective C4I (Command, Control, Communications, Computers and Intelligence) solution would be a combination of AWACS, tethered aerostat balloons and ground radar stations.