Induction of Airborne Warning System: Revolutionizing Indian Air Force

Dr. Ajey Lele

On 27 May 2009 Indian Air Force inducted one of the biggest state-of-art platforms in its fleet capable of giving advance warning of an aerial threat. The platform is also capable of gathering electronics and signals intelligence. This is India’s first Airborne Warning and Control Systems commonly known as AWACS. Two more such aerial platforms are on queue to be inducted by 2012.

This flying machine which was awaited for sometime is a co-project involving three countries: India, Israel and Russia for getting this eye-in-the-sky ready for operations. It took five years to make this platform airworthy after the initiation of agreement amongst the three countries. The entire system constitutes of Israeli-made radar fitted on top of the Russian-made IL-76 heavy transport aircraft and related electronics for data capture and its real time dissemination. Presently, in the world apart from United States and Russia the other states to possess this platform are Britain, Japan, Australia and Turkey.

The overall cost of this three AWACS deal is $1.1 billion and with its induction IAF can boast one of the most prominent force multipliers in its inventory. The basic purpose for development of such systems is to cater to the conventional requirements of the air force’s tactical and strategic operations. However, this system also has great utility towards addressing modern day asymmetric threats. Simplistically speaking any ground based radar suffers from the limitations of the curvature of earth and cannot look beyond a particular distance and to add to that topographic features bring lot amount of ‘clutter’ in its signal reception. Subsequently, it becomes difficult to provide adequate advanced notice in regard to any incoming aerial threat. Such limitations could be overcome by mounting radar on an aerial platform which flying at the heights of approximately 30,000/35,000 feet above ground level offers a better ‘viewing’ and ‘listening’ capability.

AWACS is capable of giving advanced warning about any incoming flying object be it an aircraft or a cruise missile. Such platforms are also known as Airborne Early Warning (AEW) systems. These high altitude radars are normally capable of seeing 400 km from their position. Such viewing capability would give Indian forces sufficient time to engage any incoming threat. India’s Defence Minister Mr. A K Antony points out that “current security scenario demands a need to maintain eternal vigil and safeguard the country’s strategic interest and economic assets. AWACS would provide the IAF a high degree of situational awareness, enabling it to dominate the airspace”.

This is a multipurpose platform capable of being employed both in defensive as well as offensive role. In an offensive mode the system provides radar coverage to direct offensive air operations and could lead them to the target effectively. In defensive mode the system warns about incoming threat and helps counterattack operations. This platform is also capable of providing unique surveillance facilities and would play a vital role towards battlefield management and would also act as a command and control nodal agency.

India’s AWACS is fitted with Israeli Aerospace Industries (IAI) Phalcon system. Interestingly, China was to be the buyer of these radars form Israel during 1990s. However, this deal could not go through because of the US objections for this supply. This is mainly because the US was of the opinion that presence of such system with China is not desirable considering any possible conflict in Taiwan and the subsequent presence of the US Air Force in the region.

As customary rituals Pakistan has reacted to induction of AWACS with its ‘habitual hysteria’. They feel that the induction of this system along with the recently launched RISAT (Synthetic Aperture Radar satellite) together has created an “imbalance in the power” in the region. The Islamabad also intends to have one such system with them by October. May be more than any aerial threat from India they would find this system useful to monitor (they can’t do more than this) the US Drones which keep on attacking their sovereign state at its own will!

In Indian scenario it could be said that Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) is steadily taking place. The progress is slow but is definitively there and induction AWACS is one more step in that direction. In fact AWACS should not be seen as a standalone platform. This ‘all weather’ system would enable Indian Armed forces to graduate to the next stage of network centric warfare. New government in Delhi would have to address various challenges in the defence field. There is a need to bring in overall reforms in modernizing the defence sector. Modern day warfare is all about timely induction of technology. The ‘purchase lists’ of all the three services demand immediate attention. The threat of terrorism should not allow diluting the defence preparedness to fight the conventional battles. Emergence of terrorism does not reduce conventional threats. In present scenario, China’s interests from Nepal to Sri Lanka should be deciphered correctly.

Modern day threats could come from anywhere, from sea route to cyber route, from Pakistan to China. India as a state need to remain prepared to address them. Induction of AWACS is a right step in that direction irrespective of delay in its induction. Many other military systems like aircraft carrier Gorshkov demand immediate government attention and it is hoped that new government would put need based defence requirements on ‘fast track’.

Author Note
Dr. Ajey Lele is a New Delhi based defence analyst.