According to a Times of India report, India is planning to develop and introduce 12 more “eyes in the sky” to counter the air surveillance advancements of China and Pakistan. These are advanced indigenous airborne early-warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft.
This initiative aims to enhance surveillance and detection along the borders with China and Pakistan, and will also assist in guiding friendly aircraft during air engagements with enemy jets.
The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and the Indian Air Force (IAF) are jointly focused on developing six Mark-1A and six Mark-2 versions of the Netra AEW&C aircraft.
The first three Netra AEW&C aircraft were earlier built and deployed starting February 2017.
The Indian Air Force (IAF) is also reviving the indigenous Netra-I Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft program. This program is based on the Brazilian Embraer aircraft.
The IAF felt the need for more AEW&C aircraft during an aerial skirmish with Pakistani fighters in February 2019. The ongoing confrontation with China in eastern Ladakh has also made the requirement more clear.
These aircraft, Brazilian Embraer jets, will feature advanced active electronically scanned array antenna-based radars and sophisticated electronic and signal intelligence systems at an estimated cost of around Rs 9,000 crore.
“These six AEW&C aircraft will be like the first three Embraer-145 jet-based Netra, which have 240-degree radar coverage. But there will be better software and more advanced technologies like new gallium nitride-based TR (transmit/receive) modules for the radars,” a source was quoted in the ToI report.
The development of the six Mark-2 aircraft is also progressing well.
These aircraft will have bigger and more capable versions of AEW&C radars and sensors, to be mounted on second-hand Airbus-321 planes acquired from Air India. The project is currently underway at a cost of ₹10,990 crore.
The delivery of the first such AEW&C Mark-2 aircraft, which will also have an antenna in the nose in addition to the main dorsal antenna to give 300-degree radar coverage, is expected in 2026-27.
Further, the technologies developed for the Mark-2 will also be integrated into the MK-1A models.
These projects are crucial for India, which currently trails behind Pakistan and China in AEW&C and AWACS capabilities.
The IAF’s current fleet includes three Netra aircraft and three Israeli Phalcon AWACS systems mounted on Russian IL-76 transport aircraft — with 360-degree radar coverage and a 400-km range — which were acquired between 2009-2011 for $1.1 billion.
In comparison, Pakistan operates 11 Swedish Saab-2000 Erieye AEW&C and Chinese Karakoram Eagle ZDK-03 AWACS aircraft, while China has about 30 AEW&C aircraft, including Kong Jing-2000 ‘Mainring’, KJ-200 ‘Moth’, and KJ-500 models.
The IAF’s need for additional AEW&C aircraft became particularly evident during the aerial engagement with Pakistani aircraft, which were supported by Saab-2000 Erieye AEW&C, following the cross-border Balakot air-strikes in February 2019. The ongoing standoff with China in eastern Ladakh has further highlighted this requirement.
A significant advantage for the IAF is that both the existing Netras and the Phalcons are seamlessly integrated into its Integrated Air Command and Control System (IACCS).
This fully-automated air defence network, equipped with data links, is being progressively expanded to unify a wide range of military and civilian radars for comprehensive surveillance of Indian airspace.
The IAF is also taking steps to counter the challenges posed by China and Pakistan by upgrading their tactics and equipment. This includes the induction of fighters, helicopters, missiles, and radars worth ₹2.5 to 3 lakh crore over the next few years.