Indian AWACS Moving Forward on 2 Fronts


In recent yearsIndia has been shifting toward aircraftthat would give it the ability to patrol and act at extended ranges. In January 2004, India and Israel signed a $1.1 billion contract for 3 Phalcon airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft, as part of a $1.5 billion tripartite agreement with Russia. With the arrival of its first IL-76 Phalcon, India joined the global ranks of AWACS operators. The aircraft will monitor huge swathes of Indian airspace, intercept communications and log radar frequencies, add some ground surveillance, and help command IAF responses.
At the same time, India moved to implement AWACS capabilities on a 2nd, smaller, platform, in order to provide broader coverage. The goal there is to field a Tier 2 platform based on Embraer’s ERJ-145 jet, and Indian radar and electronics, allowing India to join the global ranks of AWACS designers. Just to make things interesting, their arch-rival Pakistan offers a contrasting case study, with quicker fielding of off-the shelf buys from China (Y-8 based ZDK-03) and Sweden .
India’s AWACS: Platforms & Programs
E-707 Phalcon
Chile’s E-707 Condor
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Israel Aerospace Industries’ Phalcon system is built around an ELTA EL/M-2075 AESA L-band radar, then adds electronic and communications intelligence gathering (ELINT and COMINT) capabilities. The system can receive transmissions from other air and ground stations to round out its surveillance picture, and uses sensor fusion to provide a complete picture of the battlespace out to several hundred kilometers. On-board communications allow these AWACS planes to direct communications-compatible forces and allies based on the bigger picture, which is why AWACS planes are so valuable.
Several Phalcon platforms exist. IAI had already delivered an earlier-model “Condor” Phalcon 707 aircraft to Chile, and created a CAEW Nachshon variant for Israel and Singapore that fits into a Gulfstream 550 business jet. India already operates the IL-76 as its strategic transport aircraft and aerial refueling tanker (IL-78), however, and made its decision to use the IL-76TD as its base aircraft. Instead of the front and side structural modifications made to Chile’s Condor and the G550 CAEW jets, India’s A-50EI Phalcon will use a conventional AWACS radome, mounted on top. Because the Elta radar scans in 360 degrees automatically, the radome will be fixed rather than rotating.
The IL-76TD’s upgraded Prem PS-90 engines will make operation in India’s hot climates easier, and the system will reportedly make heavy use of Russian avionics, including a partial glass cockpit.
Reports indicate “unspecified additional capabilities” for its 3rd A-50EI Phalcon plane. The most likely additions would involve additional radar modes for specialized maritime and/or ground coverage, and/or improved signals intelligence intercept & location capability.
Russian IL-76/A-50
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Even though India picked an existing aircraft type in the IL-76, and an existing AWACS & radar system in the Phalcon, the process of marrying them together and adding India’s special request items makes the A-50EI a development project. As often happens, that project has slipped its timelines.
India was supposed to receive the first A-50EI Phalcon in December 2007, but Uzbekistan’s Tashkent Aircraft Production Organization (TAPO) was late in customizing the airframes. By November 2007, India’s 1st A-50EI was only at the maiden flight test stage, which continued into early 2008. Flight certification followed, and first delivery ended up taking place in Q2 2009, about 18 months late. At that point, all 3 aircraft were promised by the end of 2010, but final delivery of an enhanced 3rd A-50EI+ actually took place in mid-2011.
Even final delivery isn’t the end, of course. The A-50EI Phalcons have taken some time to become operational, and have even being grounded for a while at Agra while issues were ironed out.
Despite the delays, India is reportedly happy with its new capabilities. A major follow-on contract has been rumored since April 2008, when India reportedly picked up a $1-2 billion option for 3 more A-50EI Phalcon AWACS aircraft, with delivery expected in 2011-12. Despite multiple confirmations at the time, it now appears that 2008 only marked the beginning of India’s long negotiating and approval processes. The A-50EI fleet’s delays and issues have slowed things further. By late 2011, media reports were suggesting that an $800 million deal for 2 more A-50EI Phalcons had reached the final approval stage – but even that is not a signed contract.
The IL-76 Phalcons are part of an emerging architecture for India’s air force, which include the Operational Data Link (ODL), the Integrated Air Command and Control System (IACCS), and Air Force Net (AFNET).
Those underlying systems have wider reach, and they will work with other aircraft beyond the A-50EIs. They will even work with other Indian AWACS planes.
EMB -145 Eieye
EMB 145 Erieye
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India has a great deal of territory to cover, and even 6 AEW&C aircraft can easily mean just 4 operational planes at any given time. The Indian Air Force appears to be taking the “brittle swords lesson” to heart, and is looking for another 3 mid-size surveillance aircraft to act as counterparts to the larger Ilyushin Phalcons. The state-owned DRDO research and development agency’s original 2004 timeline had their medium AEW&C project finishing by 2011, but it took that long to finalize and deliver the modified base aircraft. Delays have now pushed the project’s completion back to April 2014, and the 3 aircraft together are expected to cost around R 1,800 crore (about $385 million) total when fully equipped.
While a G550 Phalcon would provide systems commonality with the IL-76s, using an already-integrated and proven platform, India chose a path aimed at maximizing indigenous R&D above all other considerations.
DRDO’s platform of choice was Embraer’s ERJ-145 business/ regional jet. The militarized EMB-145 comes in several variants, including maritime surveillance and electronic intelligence planes. The most common variant, currently operated by Brazil and Greece, is the R-99 Erieye Airborne Early Warning & Control (AEW&C) aircraft1, using the same Saab Erieye AESA radar that will be mounted on Pakistan’s new Saab 2000 turboprop AEW&C fleet. There are some blind spots with its “dorsal blade” configuration, most notably to the front, but flight patterns can be planned around those gaps to ensure good coverage of the area in question. India’s DRDO aims to create a similar aircraft, using locally-designed technologies.
Under a $210 million agreement with DRDO in July 2008, Brazil’s Embraer will act as the overall system integrator, supplying the jets, mounting the radar and electronics on or into the AWACS fuselage, ensuring that the altered jets retain acceptable flight performance, and handling flight recertification.
On the Indian side, the Bangalore-based DRDO Centre for Airborne Systems (CABS) is responsible for overall integration of the aircraft’s electronic systems, mission computer, display and data handling. DRDO’s Defence Electronics Application Laboratory will be involved with the primary sensors, communication systems and data link. DRDO’s Defence Avionics Research Establishment will be involved with the jet’s self-protection systems, electronic warfare suites and communication support systems. DRDO’s Defence Electronics Research Laboratory will be involved with “counter-support measures.”
The radar itself will not be an operational model, but a development project from DRDO’s Electronics and Radar Development Establishment. A September 2005 ACIG report claimed that the radar would be similar to Saab’s Erieye, and the CABS illustration certainly looks very similar. CABS is reportedly working with the private sector firm Astra Microwave Products of Hyderabad to develop transmit-receive multimodules [JPG format] for the radar. Doing so at a reasonable cost is always a challenge for AESA radars, however, and India’s experience with the type is limited.
This radar and systems work will be the real key to the Embraer AEW&C project’s success or failure.
Unfortunately, DRDO’s radar record is cause for some concern. DRDO was responsible for “Project Guardian/Airawat,” which suffered a disastrous project failure in 1999 when its HS-748 turboprop AWACS testbed aircraft crashed, killing several engineers and scientists who were critical to the project. These Embraer aircraft are the proposed successors to that effort. More recently, the multimode radar being developed for India’s Tejas lightweight fighter couldn’t meet specifications. IAI Elta’s M-2032, which is already in India’s Sea Harriers and some of its Jaguars, is now being used instead, in order to keep the already-late fighter program on track.
Given India’s slow processes for even off-the-shelf buys, a similar failure by DRDO could easily set the country’s medium AEW&C efforts back by over 5 years.
Meanwhile, India’s rival Pakistan is fielding 2 advanced AWACS planes of its own. One is Saab’s Erieye system, mounted on a Saab 2000 turboprop. Its 4 Erieye planes will be joined by 4 larger Chinese Y-8 turboprop derivatives, the ZDK-03 AWACS. Both varieties are military-off-the-shelf configurations, rather than development projects, which is allowing Pakistan to field operational AWACS planes much more quickly.

Contracts & Key Events

Indian Ocean
Ripple effect
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Nov 8/11: One step ahead, one step back. India is getting close to a follow-on order for 2-more IL-76 Phalcons, but its indigenous medium AWACS program is hitting delays.
India’s media are reporting that an $800 million draft contract for the 2 Phalcons “is now finally in the final stages of being examined,” as a follow on to the original $1.1 billion contract for 3.
On the other hand, The existing Phalcons have taken some time to become operational, and have even being grounded for a while at Agra. At the same time, DRDO’s planned ERJ-145 derivative AWACS prototype project has been pushed back to April 2014. Times of India.
July 25/11: Flight International reports that India is negotiating to buy 3 more AWACS planes from IAI, based on the IL-76. That higher than reports in India’s media, which have involved 2 planes.
IAI has been suggesting that India could get the same performance and range for less money, and have lower operating costs, by buying the same Gulfstream 550 CAEW jets used by Israel and Singapore.
June 1/11: Israel’s High-Tech Industry Association signs a memorandum of understanding with the Confederation of Indian Industry to boost cooperation in advanced technology, a move that is wider than the countries’ deep military ties but may give them a boost. Trade between the 2 countries hit $47 billion in 2010, moving India moving into 2nd place among Israel’s export markets. A UPI report adds that:
“As part of the Phalcon deal, the Israelis disclosed they would establish five factories in India to produce artillery shells, a project reportedly worth $250 million.”
That move would be good for India, whose problems in this area are well-known, and also for Israel, by diversifying its potential supply base for a critical item.
Feb 10/11: Aero India 2011 sees India’s mid-tier AEW&C design unveiled, which turns out to have some important differences from similar aircraft like Brazil and Greece’s R-99s. among other changes, the plane has a different tail configuration, as some of the antennae were moved to the side fairings.
The design on display includes 5 operating consoles and 7 crew seats for resting, as well as provisions for an aerial refueling probe if the IAF wishes to add it later. Embraer | Defense Update | Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
Feb 8/11: The Times of India reports that the IAF’s proposal to acquire 2 more Israeli IL-76 Phalcons remains stalled “There is in principle approval for two more Phalcon Awacs but negotiations are still in progress,” said a top defence ministry source.” At the same time, India’s indigenous AEW&C program is falling behind:
“The CCS had then set a time-frame of seven years [from 2004].... But these AEW&C planes are nowhere near even beginning their flight trials. The project completion date has now being extended to April 2014, which itself is set to be revised. “The aircraft and mission system availability is now scheduled for this year, with the integrated system availability pushed back to 2013,” said a MoD source.”
The subsequent comparison with Pakistan’s off-the-shelf programs is invidious.
Jan 28/11: Aviation Week reports that Embraer’s first EMB-145 jet for the Indian Center for Airborne Systems department’s AEW&C program is scheduled for a Feb 21/11 rollout, followed by an August 2011 landing in India for system integration.
India’s Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) approved the Rs 1,800 crore ($396 million) AEW&C development program in October 2004, with the expectation that development would be done in 2011 – but the IAF’s 3-year delay in finalizing the system’s requirements has pushed the estimated end of system development to 2014.
Jan 12/11: India’s 3rd Phalcon aircraft is performing long-duration flights over Israel and the Mediterranean using “some very complex scenarios”, with Indian Air Force personnel aboard. The planes also reportedly have some additional features, as India requested “unspecified additional capabilities” for its 3rd Phalcon plane. The most likely additions would involve additional radar modes for maritime and/or ground coverage, and improved signals intelligence intercept & location capability.
Delivery of the 3rd plane is scheduled for mid-2011. Flight International.
Nov 9/10: IANS reports that India’s indigenously-developed AEW&C radar system will be sent to Brazil “shortly,” to be integrated with an Embraer 145 jet. DRDO’s Chief Controller (SI) Prahlada, told India Strategic defence magazine that the first base jet for the program is due to roll out in January 2011, and the Indian AEW&C radar will be integrated on it by the end of 2011. That would allow testing and certification, which will take a couple of years.
Nov 1/10: India Defence quotes DRDO’s Chief Controller of Research and Development, Dr. Prahlada, as saying that the EMB-145 will be the base platform for India’s first 3 mid-tier AEW&C planes, but the platform for the remaining 6 aircraft is undecided. DRDO’s AEW&C is currently scheduled to enter service around 2015.
In practice, the costs of integrating all of the systems involved into another aircraft type are generally to high to justify a mid-program switch, unless the original platform faces critical limitations or cannot perform. The other possibility is simply to buy an aircraft off the shelf, bypassing the indigenous program. IAI is offering its CAEW 550 planes flown by Israel and Singapore, touting them as the same capability in the IL-76 Phalcons, with significant commonality, for a fraction of the operating costs. Boeing has also reportedly made overtures with its larger E-737, which has been purchased by Australia, South Korea, and Turkey.
June 23/10: EADS Defence & Security announces a “two-digit-million [Euros, presumably]” contract to help India’s DRDO develop the system architecture for its indigenous AEW&C program. Airbus’ experience with civil certification and mission equipment optimization will also play a role in this contract.
EADS Defence Electronics has worked with DRDO since 2006, developing a Missile Approach Warning System for Indian helicopter and wide-body aircraft. Beyond India, EADS DS developed a data fusion system that’s installed on NATO AWACS aircraft, as well as Australia’s and Turkey’s E-737 Airborne Early Warning fleets.
May 27/10: India’s 2nd of 3 contracted Phalcon AWACS aircraft arrives at Jamnagar in Gujarat, after which it will proceed to the AWACS homebase in Agra. Formal delivery and handover can take place outside of India, hence the March 25/10 date previously offered by the defense minister.
The IAF is keen to buy another 3 AWACS, even as DRDO works on its $210 million mini-AWACS demonstrator project. Times of India.
May 5/10: Defence Minister Shri AK Antony offers a written Parliamentary update:
“The contract for supply of three Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft was signed with M/s Elta, Israel on March 05, 2004. The first and second AWACS aircraft were delivered to the Indian Air Force on May 25, 2009 and March 25, 2010 respectively as per the revised delivery schedule. The delivery of the third aircraft is planned for December 2010. Additional AWACS aircraft are planned to be procured in the 12th, 13th and 14th Plans.”
The 1st Phalcon AWACS was originally scheduled for delivery in December 2007, with the 2nd following in September 2008 and the 3rd in March 2009.
April 11/10: Russia delivers the 3rd and final converted IL-76/ A-50EI airframe to Israel, for full systems installation and testing. A spokesman for the Beriyev aircraft center said that: “We have finished retrofitting a [third] transport plane for special tasks, and sent it to Israel in October….” RIA Novosti.
Feb 2/10: The inauguration of the Bangalore-based Centre for Airborne Systems (CABS) System Test and Integration Rig (STIR) complex for testing airborne systems offers an update on India’s AWACS project. CABS Director S Christopher says that:
“AEW&C’s flying platform is the modified EMB145, which will take to skies later this year. It is scheduled to be delivered to us in Aug 2011…. our mission systems will be ready by this year. It will be tested in this rig in 2011, followed by flight testing in 2012.”
Jan 17/10: IANS reports that India’s 2nd IL-76 Phalcon is slated for delivery in March 2010, and is also slated to be based at Agra air base. This is later than the original delivery schedule.
May 25/09: First delivery. The first Indian IL-76 Phalcon AWACS plane lands at Jamnagar air base in India’s far western Gujarat province. The plane took off from Ovda air base near Eilat, Israel, and was escorted by Indian MiG-29s and Jaguar fighters for the last leg of its flight. The formal induction ceremony will take place on May 28/09.
The planes will eventually be based at IAF Central Command’s Agra air base in Uttar Pradesh. Agra isn’t far from the border with Nepal, but it’s best known for its association with the nearby Taj Mahal. Indian AF release | Sify | Straits Times | Thaindian News | Times of India | Rediff background
Feb 12/09: Defense Update reports that a July 2008 contract for 3 smaller AWACS based on the ERJ-145 hasn’t stopped Israel’s IAI from promoting its Gulstream G550 CAEW, which uses an Elta AESA EL/W-2085 radar that’s closely related to the one in India’s 2 planned IL-76 AWACS. The jet can perform aerial target tracking, along with some electronic intelligence (ELINT) and communications intercepts (COMINT); it will succeed the E-2C Hawkeye and 707 Phalcon in Israeli Air Force service, and Singapore’s RSAF recently inducted its first aircraft.
India’s history of project failures makes promotion of the G550 a wise move, in case the DRDO’s ERJ-145 AWACS radar fails. The move may be aimed at another target, however – India’s options for additional IL-76 Phalcons. The G550 is an extreme range business jet, and Israeli data gives their CAEW variant an endurance of 9 hours. This compares to 6 hours on station for the larger IL-76, which is also more expensive to operate. As a demonstration of its capabilities, a G550 CAEW flew non-stop from Israel to India for Aero India 2009.
Jan 11/09: The first IL-76 Phalcon reportedly lands in New Delhi, India, for inspection. India Today.
Sept 18/08: The Times of India quotes Defence ministry sources as saying that the first IL-76 Phalcon will now land in India only around January-February 2009, though they are pushing IAI to deliver the aircraft before the end of 2008 despite “technical hitches in the integration work”.
The Times’ report adds that India signed a $210-million deal with Brazilian firm Embraer in July 2008 for 3 EMB-145 aircraft. The intent of the INR 18 billion (about $385 million) project is to modify them with DRDO-provided radar and command systems; if that works, the jets would begin arriving in 2011-2012.
India is also reportedly on course to acquire 4 more Israeli tethered aerostats and EL/M-2083 radars, at a cost of around $300 million. This follow-on to the aerostat radars inducted from 2004-2005 has reportedly been cleared by the Defence Acquisitions Council; if adopted, it would raise India’s total Airborne Early Warning aerostat purchases to about $445 million. Aerostat-mounted radars trade the advantage of mobility for incredible persistence, and are especially useful for watching key coastline and key border regions, or defending high value areas.
Sept 14/08: Zee News quotes Indian Army Maj. Gen. (Retd) Mrinal Suman, writing in the September issue of Indian Defence Review, as saying that India paid twice as much as it should have for its initial order of A-50 Phalcon AWACS aircraft.
”...inability to negotiate contracts astutely has been the biggest weakness of the entire defence procurement regime…. as the vendors exploit ambiguities in the contract language, especially with respect to delivery schedules, warranties, after sales support and penalties for default.”
Suman retired as Technical Manager (Land Systems) in the Indian Defence Ministry’s acquisition wing.
July 2008: Brazil’s Embraer signs a contract to deliver 3 ERJ-145 jets, to be modified into AWACS aircraft by adding radar systems from India’s DRDO. Source.
JLENS Concept
Aerostat radar:
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May 16/08: The Calcutta Telegraph reports that the first 3 IL-76 Phalcons will be delayed, and so will a pair of Israeli aerostat-mounted radars India has ordered:
“A source in the Indian Air Force has confirmed that the delivery of the first Phalcon will be delayed. It was expected in September but is now more likely to reach India only at the end of the first quarter of 2009… delivery of two Aerostat radars… will also be delayed.
This is the second time that the delivery schedule of the Phalcons has been disrupted. The original schedule envisaged the delivery of the first aircraft in November 2007, the second in August 2008 and the third in the second half of 2009…. The delays, however, have not dissuaded the air force from working through a proposal to ask for three more Phalcons in a follow-on order estimated at $2 billion.”
April 13/08: India Defense reports that India is pleased enough to pick up the option for 3 more IL-76 Phalcon AWACS aircraft, in a deal worth up to $2 billion.
Jane’s Defence Weekly issued a concurring report later in the week, but placed the deal’s value at $1 billion. Assuming that the equipment sets are the same and inflation is 3% per year, note that repeating 2004’s $1.5 billion deal works out to about $1.7 billion by 2008. Delivery of these 3 additional planes would be expected to take place in 2011-12.


1 The terms AWACS and AEW&C can be used interchangeably. Many militaries are gravitating toward the more cumbersome “AEW&C” as standard nomenclature these days.

Video Briefings from Aero India 2009


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