On 17 December 2020, the Indian Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) cleared armament procurement proposals worth 28,000 Crore. The most important amongst these proposals is the order for six Airborne Early Warning & Control Systems (AEW&CS). These AEW&CS aircraft will be developed by DRDO and will be mounted on the A-320 of Air India. Reportedly, the Defence Ministry found this proposal more economic than the earlier offers. You may read a previously published Guarding India exclusive that predicted the need for these AEW&CS aircraft.
Airborne Early Warning & Control Systems is essentially an airborne radar system that is mounted on suitable transport or passenger aircraft. AEW&CS aircraft can be easily identified by the large round rotodome or a bar like design that house radar panels. AEW&CS is considered as force multipliers and indeed are most prized possessions of any air force as they can track enemy fighter hundred of kilometers away and directs own fighters to intercept any aerial threats. It is due to these capabilities AEW&CS aircraft are at the center of modern aerial warfare.
Presently, the Indian Air Force has two kinds of AEW&CS aircraft. First is the Israeli EL/W-2090 Phalcon AEW&CS which is mounted on Russian IL-76 transport aircraft. Phalcon uses an advanced active electronically scanned array (AESA) with a range of more than 500 kilometers. Phalcon AEW&CS is considered amongst the most advanced AEW&CS aircraft in the world not only due to its cutting-edge AESA radar but also other integrated sensors. Phalcon has state of the art electronic intelligence (ELINT) system and communication intelligence (COMINT) sensors. Presently IAF has three Phalcon AEW&CS which were ordered in 2004. Besides this India has placed a repeat order for two more Phalcon AEW&CS aircraft. Thus, in the future, India will have a total of five Phalcon AEW&CS aircraft.
The second AEW&CS aircraft of the Indian Air Force is the DRDO Netra AEW&C that is an indigenous design. Netra AEW&CS aircraft uses an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar with a range of 300-kilometers. Netra AEW&CS has been developed by mounting DRDO’s AESA radar on Brazilian Embraer ERJ 145 aircraft. How much trust IAF has on Netra AEW&CS it is evident from the fact that it was used in the Balakot strike of 26 February 2020. During the Balakot strike, Netra AEW&CS not only directed the strike package comprising 12 Mirage 2000 fighters of Indian Air Force till Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorist camps deep inside PoK but also continuously monitored Pakistan Air Force activity. Currently, the Indian Air Force has Netra AEW&CS aircraft. After covering both AEW&CS aircraft used by India we will now investigate why India requires these newly ordered AEW&CS aircraft.
Presently, PLAAF or the Chinese Air Force has 30 AEW&CS aircraft which is five times the AEW&CS held with the Indian Air Force. China has three types of AEW&CS aircraft. Presently, KJ-2000 is the best Chinese AEW&CS platform with an approximate range of 400-450 kilometers and just like Indian Phalcon, KJ-2000 also uses Russian Il-76 as carrier aircraft. The second Chinese AEW&CS aircraft is the KJ-200 which has a range of 300-400 kilometers which is mounted on Y-8 transport aircraft. The third and final AEW&CS in the Chinese Air Force service is called KJ-500 and it has a reported range of 300 – 450 kilometers.
After, covering the Chinese Air Force AEW&CS aircraft let’s move to Pakistan. Currently, Pakistan Air Force has a total of 08 AEW&CS aircraft which is higher than six AEW&CS aircraft of the Indian Air Force. Pakistan Air Force uses two types of AEW&CS aircraft. First is the Swedish Saab E-2000 AEW&CS system that employs Saab Erieye AESA radar system mounted on Saab 340 aircraft. The range of Saab E-2000 AEW&CS is 350 kilometers. The second AEW&CS aircraft of Pakistan comes from China in form of a KJ-200 AEW&CS with a range of 300-400 kilometers.
By now you know that both China and Pakistan have more AEW&CS aircraft than India. Thus, while China has 30 AEW&CS aircraft and Pakistan has 8 AEW&CS aircraft, the Indian Air Force remains hard-pressed as it just has six AEW&CS aircraft which is far too less than 38 AEW&CS aircraft held between Pakistan and China.
It is for precisely this reason that on 17 Dec 2020, the Ministry of Defence ordered six AEW&CS aircrafts Indian Air Force at the cost of INR 10,990 crore. These AEW&CS aircraft will be unique as in this DRDO developed active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar will be fitted on Air India’s Airbus 320 aircraft. This DRDO developed AESA radar development will be an advanced version of Netra AEW&CS. Air India Airbus A-320 aircraft will be modified in European factories of Airbus corporation and then flown back to India for the outfitting of classified AESA radar and another defence system. This project is expected to materialize in the next six years means by 2026, the Indian Air Force will have all the six AEW&CS aircraft and then India will have 14 AEW&CS aircraft.
Finally, Team Guarding India welcomes this smart decision of the Indian Defence Ministry as it seems a cost-effective decision. We hope that DRDO delivers these new AEW&CS aircraft to Indian Air Force on time which will be a big boost for Indian Air Force.