Owing to recent tussle with the Pakistani Air Force, Indian Air Force is gearing up to beef up its AEW&C’s fleet. It was assumed that PAF calculated the changeover time of IAF’s eye in the sky and then targeted its attack on the Indian armed forces. This attack which was marked as the retaliation of IAF Balakot strike exposes the need of IAF to augment its current fleet of airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft.
Indigenous AWACS programme has seen lot roadblocks till now. In 2018, IAF had asked the DRDO to make sure that the AWACS platform it delivers also has the capability to be used as a refuelling tanker. The request was proposed after the IAF after it failed to circle tanker purchase after a series of contest aborts. That separate quest for tankers has left the IAF exasperated enough to consider junking an outright purchase attempt and seriously look at the option to least mid-air tankers for the medium term.
MoD in 2015 cleared the programme to manufacture Airbus A330 based AWACS system and had allotted Rs 5113 crore for the programme. DRDO while actively making progress with dorsal radome at its centre in Bangalore, didn’t make any advancement for the aircraft platforms even after receiving clearance in the procurement procedures.
Recently, in a move to further enhance the Indian Air Force’s airborne early warning (AEW) fleet, DRDO has cleared the plan to convert six Air India A320s. These civil aircraft are operated by India’s national carrier Air India and as per the new plan, they all will be transformed into new airborne early warning & control (AEW&C) aircraft. The Ministry of Defence has allocated a fund of Rs 10,500 crore part of which will be used by India’s Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) to install radars and sensors and to imbed required alterations in these six aircraft.
However, after completion of the first step, these planes will be sent to France for further modifications as specified by DRDO/Indian Air Force. If plans remain on track, the six aircraft will join the IAF to add AEW muscle to the pair of Embraer-DRDO AEW&C Netra jets in service and three older PHALCON AWACS jets. As per the media reports, the new AEW&Cs will be fitted with a dorsal antenna similar to Netra jets. Some other news pieces stated that planes will be fitted with radome solution however, it is not yet clear. In the words of a scientist familiar with the programme, it will involve “trying past experience with additional features”. Currently, IAF has three Israeli Phalcon AWACS on Ilyushin-76 transport aircraft and two indigenous ‘Netra’ AEW&C aircraft.