New Delhi: India has cleared a $1.5-billion proposal to build airborne warning and control systems for the air force taking over six Airbus A321 passenger aircraft off the national carrier Air India, to act as the ‘eyes in the sky’ to keep a watch on military movement in neighbouring nuclear-armed China and Pakistan.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) on Sep. 8 cleared the proposal of the Indian Air Force (IAF) to build six Airborne Early Warning and Control Systems (AEW&CS) developed by state-run defence research agency mounted on the A321 aircraft.
The government gave the final nod to the mega indigenous project to build six of the AEW&CS, critical in modern warfare, to bolster the IAF’s surveillance capability along the borders with China and Pakistan, the Times of India reported today, without name the sources from whom it got the information.
The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) project, which will entail mounting indigenous 360-degree coverage Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radars on six Airbus A321 passenger aircraft to be acquired from the existing state-owned carrier Air India’s fleet.
The CCS had also cleared the long-pending project to build 56 Airbus C295 medium transport aircraft jointly with the Tata Group at a cost of over Rs 21,000 crore (around $3 billion), as reported by Defence.Capital on Sep. 8.
The AEW&CS project, which was accorded the initial Acceptance of Necessity by the Ministry of Defence in Dec. last year, is considered a critical acquisition for the Indian armed forces, as India lags in this capability vis-à-vis both China and Pakistan.
China has around 30 AEW&CS aircraft, including Kong Jing-2000 “Mainring”, KJ-200 “Moth” and KJ-500 aircraft. Pakistan, in turn, has 8-10 Chinese Karakoram Eagle ZDK-03 AWACS and Swedish Saab-2000 AEW&CS.
Under the project, the first flight trial of the AEW&CS aircraft is now expected to take place in four years, with the entire project being completed in seven years.
IAF currently has just three Israeli Phalcon Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) mounted on Russian Ilyushin IL-76 transport aircraft, with 360-degree radar coverage at a 400-km range.
It also has two indigenous DRDO-developed ‘Netra’ AEW&CS aircraft, with indigenous 240-degree coverage radars with a 250-km range, fitted on smaller Brazilian Embraer-145 jets, inducted in Feb. 2017.
The new AEW&C aircraft will be a major upgrade on the Netra in terms of 360-degree coverage and longer range. The A321 planes will be bought from Air India at a much cheaper rate and then modified with the help of Airbus Defence and Space to fit the indigenous radars and other equipment. Their entire maintenance and service will be in India.
AEW&CS or AWACS aircraft can detect incoming fighters, cruise missiles and drones much before ground-based radars, direct friendly fighters during air combat with enemy jets, and keep tabs on enemy troop build-ups and warships.
The IAF felt the operational necessity for more such aircraft during the aerial skirmish with Pakistani fighters in Feb. 2019 after the cross-border Balakot air-strikes by India, the TOI said. The continuing military confrontation with China in eastern Ladakh has further accentuated the need.
The IAF’s five such aircraft are part of the Integrated Air Command and Control System (IACCS), the fully-automated air defence network with data links being progressively built to integrate the wide array of military radars with each other, as well as with civilian radars to plug surveillance gaps in the Indian airspace.