Thanks to Russia, AWACS deal stall and hit the Indian Air Force
- Such airborne surveillance systems play a critical role in modern-day warfare because they can detect incoming fighters, drones and cruise missiles.
- IAF currently has only three AWACS, with Israeli Phalcon radar systems mounted on Russian IL-76 heavy-lift aircraft.
If airborne warning and control systems (AWACS) are considered “eyes in the sky”, India is battling debilitating cataract in this military arena. Even as China and Pakistan induct more such force-multipliers, the IAF is faced with a double whammy due to a deadlocked deal with Israel and Russia as well as painfully slow progress in indigenous efforts.
IAF currently has only three AWACS, with Israeli Phalcon radar systems mounted on Russian IL-76 heavy-lift aircraft, which were inducted in 2009-2011 under a $1.1 billion deal inked in 2004.
The force also inducted an indigenous AEW&C (airborne early-warning and control system) christened “Netra” in February this year, about seven years behind schedule. Moreover, while Netra has a normal radar range of just 250-km with 240-degree coverage, AWACS like the Phalcon have an over 400-km range with 360-degree coverage.
Such airborne surveillance systems play a critical role in modern-day warfare because they can detect incoming fighters, drones and cruise missiles much before ground based radars as well as direct air defence fighters during combat operations with enemy jets.
So, it’s no wonder both Pakistan and China have made them a top military priority. Pakistan now has seven such platforms, with the Chinese Karakoram Eagle ZDK-03 AWACS being the latest inductions.
“They are on course to get three more. China, in turn, has well over 20 AWACS, including the latest KJ-500s,” said a source.
India, in contrast, continues to flounder. The case for two more “follow-on” Phalcon AWACS, in the tripartite deal with Russia and Israel, remains stuck due to sharp cost escalation, as was earlier reported by TOI.
Sources say the government is ready to pay only about $800 million for the two AWACS, and not the $1.3 billion being demanded by the original equipment manufacturers.
“Russia has majorly jacked up the prices for the IL-76s, which is unacceptable to the government,” said a source.
On the indigenous front, the two aircraft under the AWACS-India project will be ready only by 2024-2025 at the earliest. Though the defence ministry approved the Rs 5,113 crore project in March 2015, under which 360-degree coverage indigenous AESA (active electronically scanned array) radars are to be mounted on Airbus A-330 wide-body jets, the contract is yet to be inked.
Sources say it will take 80 months to operationalise the two AWACS once the contract is inked sometime next year. Six more AWACS are likely to be ordered once the project takes concrete shape, with structural and electrical changes to the A-330 aircraft to fit the radar domes on the top.
The AWACS-India project, with 80:20 cost sharing between IAF and DRDO, is far more ambitious than the Rs 2,425 crore project for the three Netra aircraft. Under it, indigenous 240-degree coverage radars have been fitted on three smaller Brazilian Embraer-145 jets. The first Netra is now undergoing operational test-runs at the Bhatinda airbase after initial operational clearance, while the second is awaiting final operational clearance. The third will be retained by the DRDO for R&D work.
The Embraer deal, of course, is also engulfed in a kickbacks scandal after allegations surfaced last year that the Brazilian aviation major had allegedly hired a UK-based agent and paid commissions to swing the $208 million deal with India in 2008, as was then reported by TOI.