Last Word

The huge de­fi­ciency in the AWACS fleet of the IAF is wor­ri­some as both Pak­istan and China are in the process of ex­pand­ing their fleets of th­ese aerial plat­forms.


Eye in the Sky “Needed”

The is­sue of the rapidly dwin­dling strength of the fleet of com­bat air­craft in the In­dian Air Force (IAF) and the im­ped­i­ments that the ser­vice has been con­fronted with since the be­gin­ning of the last decade in its ef­fort to in­duct modern fourth-gen­er­a­tion plat­forms to re­store its op­er­a­tional edge over its ad­ver­saries, has been a sub­ject of­ten de­bated in pub­lic do­main. But what is not so well known is the de­fi­ciency in the IAF in the do­main of Force Mul­ti­pli­ers that can have an equally de­bil­i­tat­ing ef­fect on the op­er­a­tional ca­pa­bil­ity of the IAF. Of par­tic­u­lar con­cern is the short­age of Air­borne Warn­ing and Con­trol Sys­tem (AWACS) air­craft that can en­hance both of­fen­sive and de­fen­sive ca­pa­bil­i­ties of com­bat air­craft on op­er­a­tional mis­sions through early warn­ing fol­lowed by ex­tremely ac­cu­rate guid­ance and con­trol. The AWACS air­craft is a vi­tal com­po­nent of the In­te­grated Air Com­mand and Con­trol Sys­tem which is a fully-au­to­mated air de­fence net­work with data links to in­te­grate the wide ar­ray of mil­i­tary radars into the sys­tem as well as with civil­ian radars to plug sur­veil­lance gaps in In­dian airspace.

As against an es­ti­mated re­quire­ment of a min­i­mum of 18 AWACS plat­forms to cater for op­er­a­tions on both Western and North­ern fronts si­mul­ta­ne­ously, the IAF cur­rently has only three on its in­ven­tory. Th­ese are ba­si­cally IL-76 air­craft from Rus­sia fit­ted with Is­rael-built Phal­con radar sys­tem. Three of th­ese plat­forms were ac­quired in the pe­riod 2009 to 2011 through a $1.1 bil­lion deal. Ef­forts to aug­ment this fleet with two ad­di­tional plat­forms of the same make, did not fruc­tify as there was a steep es­ca­la­tion in cost to nearly dou­ble that was paid for the first lot of three air­craft. In search of an al­ter­na­tive, an AWACS ver­sion based on the Air­bus A330 Multi-Role Tanker Trans­port (MRTT) air­craft that was iden­ti­fied by the IAF as the ap­pro­pri­ate plat­form through a global ten­der, was not ap­proved by the Min­istry of De­fence in two con­sec­u­tive ten­ders, both for rea­sons of ex­or­bi­tant cost. The IAF is now look­ing at the KC-46, an aerial tanker from Boe­ing. Based on the Boe­ing 767 airliner plat­form, the KC-46 aerial tanker is cur­rently un­der de­vel­op­ment. Smaller in size com­pared with the Air­bus A330 MRTT and with lower pay­load ca­pac­ity, this plat­form is ex­pected to be avail­able at con­sid­er­ably lower cost.

In the mean­time the In­dian aero­space in­dus­try has de­liv­ered two Em­braer ERJ 145-based Air­borne Early Warn­ing and Con­trol ( AEW&C) air­craft called Ne­tra. Th­ese plat­forms have much lower level of ca­pa­bil­ity when com­pared to the AWACS air­craft and can only aug­ment and not serve as their re­place­ment. In a me­dia in­ter­view on Novem­ber 11 this year, Air Chief Mar­shal B.S. Dhanoa, Chief of the Air Staff clearly ad­mit­ted that “There is cause for con­cern over the rate of mod­erni­sa­tion and in­duc­tion of new equip­ment in In­dia’s neigh­bour­hood”. Im­plicit in his state­ment is the need for the IAF close the ex­ist­ing gaps in­clud­ing in the do­main of Force Mul­ti­pli­ers through the en­hance­ment of its AWACS fleet.

The huge de­fi­ciency in the AWACS fleet is par­tic­u­larly wor­ri­some as both Pak­istan and China are in the process of ex­pand­ing their fleets of th­ese aerial plat­forms. China al­ready has four of the in­dige­nously de­vel­oped KJ-2000 AWACS based on the Rus­sian IL-76 air­craft. China has 26 in­dige­nously de­vel­oped plat­forms such as the KJ-200 and KJ-500 Air­borne Early Warn­ing sys­tems based on Y-8 and Y-9 trans­port air­craft air­frames re­spec­tively. It is re­ported that 11 of the for­mer and 15 of the lat­ter are al­ready in ser­vice. The Pak­istan Air Force (PAF) on the other hand has eight Chi­nese Karako­ram Ea­gle ZDK-03 AWACS and Swedish Saab 2000 AEW&C air­craft. It is also on course to get ad­di­tional air­craft from China.

Ef­fort by the In­dian aero­space in­dus­try at in­dige­nous de­vel­op­ment of a AWACS plat­form be­gan in the 1980s with an Avro HS-748 twin-tur­bo­prop air­craft. Ini­tially meant to be only a tech­nol­ogy demon­stra­tor, while on a test flight, the Avro air­craft crashed on Jan­uary 11, 1999 killing all eight on board. This disas­ter took place nearly a decade after the project was launched. Con­se­quent to the ac­ci­dent, the pro­gramme came to a grind­ing halt and was later aban­doned. How­ever, sub­se­quently, a new project to de­velop the Ne­tra AEW&C on Em­braer ERJ 145 plat­form was launched in the be­gin­ning of the last decade. There­after, in 2015, the in­dige­nous AWACS project was also re­vived with the De­fence Re­search and De­vel­op­ment Or­gan­i­sa­tion (DRDO) tak­ing up an ex­er­cise to mount in­dige­nously de­vel­oped Ac­tive Elec­tron­i­cally Scanned Ar­ray (AESA) radar Air­bus A330 wide-body jets. Two of th­ese plat­forms are un­der de­vel­op­ment and are ex­pected to be ready by 2025 hope­fully. The IAF plans to or­der six more if the project is suc­cess­ful.

Un­less the IAF has the right number of AWACS air­craft on its strength that can serve as the prover­bial “Eye in the Sky”, the air de­fence seg­ment of the force will re­main af­flicted with de­fi­ciency in the level of ca­pa­bil­ity re­quired.

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