IAF A-50 Phalcon AWE&CS
PC : Indian Air Force

After the preemptive strike by the Indian Army on 29-30 Aug 2020, the Chinese Air force deployed Su-30MKK fighter at Hotan airbase in addition to the previous deployment of Su-27 fighters at Ngari Gunsa airbase. Both these Chinese airbases are located within 400 kilometers from Leh. This means that Chinese fighters flying at supersonic speeds can target Indian Army posts in Ladakh within 10 minutes after takeoff which gives Indian Air Force very little time to react. While Indian Air Force remains on high alert to deter any Chinese aerial strikes, this aerial battle will be fought high over Himalayas in which airborne early warning and control systems (AEW&CS) are crucial for early neutralization of any intruding Chinese fighters. This week, the Indian Government is expected to clear the purchase of two Phalcon AEW&CS planes from Israel in a deal worth 1.1 billion USD. Team Guarding India brings you the story about Phalcon AEW&CS and why these platforms are so important for the Indian Air Force.

In 2004, India and Israel signed a deal with worth USD 1.1 billion for the delivery of three EL/W-2090 Phalcon Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&CS) radar to the Indian Air Force. The deal was unique in military circles as it envisaged mounting of most sophisticated western AWA&CS radar on the Russian Il-76 transport platform. IAF received its first Phalcon AEW&CS in May 2009 and as of now three are in service and with a recent order of two more Phalcon systems, the total number will be five AEW&CS in total.

Phalcon AEW&CS
Phalcon AEW&CS | PC : Indian Air Force

Phalcon uses an advanced active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar is housed in a fixed rotodome on top of the plane. Despite its humble looks, Phalcon is considered amongst the most advanced AEW&CS aircraft in the world. It uses an AESA L-Band radar which provides 360° coverage, enabling it to detect enemy aircraft flying at 500 kilometers or beyond. This means that a Phalcon AWA&CS flying over Leh can cover both Hotan and Ngari Gunsa Airbases where Chinese fighters are based presently.

Phalcon can operate in a very wide frequency band in which exact radar frequencies are constantly changed to avoid enemy interference or jamming. The advanced AESA radar commences tracking in less than four seconds which at least five times faster than older rotating rotodome systems. For automated tracking, it has an Identification, friend, or foe (IFF) system which digitally asks every plane and identifies them as friendly or hostile.

The Phalcon is considered the most advanced AEW&CS system not only due to its cutting-edge AESA radar but also other integrated sensors. Phalcon has inbuilt electronic intelligence (ELINT) system that tracks any electronic emissions in the area besides having dedicated communication intelligence (COMINT) sensors aboard which tracks any communication by enemy fighters. The Phalcon computers integrate the data from all three sensors i.e. AESA radar, ELINT, and COMINT sensors. This integrated data presents a complete picture of airspace, tracking even planes who are trying to hide by switching off communication systems or by switching off their radars. Thus, there is no way an enemy fighter can escape from Phalcon AEW&CS.

Besides being an airborne radar, Phalcon can also act as an airborne command center for aerial as well as ground battles. For this role, Phalcon is equipped with long-range secure communication using both radio and satellite links. For self-protection, IAF Phalcon AEW&CS are equipped with chaff and flares.

Besides Phalcon, India also has ‘Made in India’ DRDO Netra AEW&C with more than a 300-kilometer range. This simple system played a key role in the Balakot strike by guiding IAF Mirage 2000 fighters for bombing Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorist camps inside PoK.

DRDO Netra
DRDO Netra AEW&C | PC : Indian Air Force

Phalcon AEW&CS is so advanced that even China wanted to purchase this formidable platform from Israel. However, their sale was blocked by US pressure. Subsequently, China went on to develop its own AEW&CS aircraft and sold it to Pakistan too! Presently, the Chinese Air Force (PLAAF) has around 30 AEW&CS systems of three different types.

The KJ-2000 is considered as the best Chinese AEW&CS platform with an assessed range of 400 – 450 kilometer and just like Indian Phalcon, KJ-2000 uses Russian Il-76 as carrier aircraft. Presently, China has only five KJ-2000s which are mostly focused on the eastern border with Japan and Taiwan. KJ-2000 is the only Chinese AEW&CS aircraft with a turbofan engine that will behave good performance over the Tibetan plateau.

Shaanxi KJ-500
Shaanxi KJ-500 | PC : File Photo

The other two Chinese AEW&CS aircraft are KJ-200 and KJ-500 with an estimated range of 300-450 kilometers. However, KJ-200 and KJ-500 are based on Y-8 and Y-9 turboprop aircraft which have limited high altitude performance. Surprisingly, Y-8 and Y-9 are derivative of Soviet An-12 aircraft which were flown by the Indian Air force during the 1962 Indo-China war and were phased out by the 1990s. Presently, China has deployed two KJ-500 AEW&CS Aircrafts at Hotan airbase which is directly aimed at India.

Finally, at present, the Indian Air Force has only six* AEW&CS aircraft against 30 AEW&CS aircraft fielded by the Chinese Air force. This means India immediately needs to acquire more AEW&CS platforms as even the six AEW&CS aircrafts held with IAF will be divided between Pakistan and China border which will further reduce the availability on the Chinese border. Thus, in addition to ordering two AEW&CS from Israel, India also needs to produce more AEW&CS aircraft using proven NETRA technology.