The long awaited AWACS (Air Borne Warning and Control Systems) is eventually being inducted in the Indian Air Force. Israeli Phalcon Radar is being integrated on the Russian IL-76 A-50 Beriev Transport jets under Indian supervision and the software programmes are being written by Indian specialists. The Indian endeavour in obtaining this vigorously pursued and revolutionary augmentation to country’s air defence network has not been without loss of resources, lives and a period of two decades when it comes to fruition hopefully in 2005. An indigenous and ambitious project of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) on Airborne Surveillance Warning and Control Systems (ASWAC) in the past was halted by the government when in 1999 the “experimental system” crashed in the mother AVRO aircraft in the hills of Tamil Nadu. The accident was caused by the rotodome shearing off and hitting the tail of the aircraft. The IAF then tested the Russian AE-50 system, a variant of the IL-76 aircraft and found it unsatisfactory. The Israeli option seemingly coincided with the cancellation, under strident opposition from US government, of an identical and highly advanced, joint Chinese-Israeli development programme. The Indian programme survived a similar opposition from US largely due to a favourable tilt in the American stance and Israeli lobbying.
A critical appraisal of this acquisition must be done in the light of the foremost requirement of an Air Defence Network. Its purpose is to provide an adequate early warning of the airborne hostile intruder so that a timely interception can be undertaken before it penetrates airspace sought to be brought under control. And in the conduct of defensive counter air operations the ultimate goal would be to suppress all opposition in the designated airspace. During peace time and in advancing battle zones the requirements remain same. In the Indian context the extent of this warning is restricted for low flying vehicles operating below Radar cover due to the inherent limitation of a ground based system not able to detect up to desired ranges. The benefits of the “Over the Horizon Radar” accrue to the Phalcon AWACS, by operating at about 30,000 feet and thus being able to monitor low level activity in the air space up to ranges of 500 km. On India’s western borders, such surveillance over sea will yield optimum results in reporting both air and sea activity. Over land, advantages of detection ranges may have to be marginally forsaken to protect the AWACS aircraft against SAMS but ranges of 400 km are possible with tactical routing. Formidable gains in detection ranges are most likely across the Himalayan Ranges on the northern borders where Radar Units could not be located due to an inhospitable terrain.
An AWACS is a control centre which can track 100 targets and intercept at least half of them simultaneously with aircraft and SAMS; each engagement closely monitored and reported in real time. The sobriquet “Force multiplier” justifies as economies of effort and resources are nearly quadrupled. The operations are supported by onboard ECM (electronic counter measures) and ECCM (electronic counter counter measures) systems for electronic warfare. Passive Comint and Elint devices record data up to1000 km and “data link” to ground stations. Although an ESM package is incorporated for self protection, this expensive and crucially important platform should not be operated without suitable fighter protection especially in a hostile environment.
The AWACS’ ability to deal with threats from missiles must be seen within the context of the composite mother network. The Phalcon radar is designed to scan from ground level to about 40,000 feet and all moving objects in this envelope of air space are detectable except for objects returning a smaller radar cross section. A low flying cruise missile for example has a radar cross section of about .005 metre at a range of 200 km and may thus reduce the extent of early warning and logically the US is upgrading its space assets to detect such intrusion. In cases of high trajectory incoming ICBM/ IRBM, other ground based radars would have detected the missiles well before they start painting on the Phalcon Radar. A separate project on the installation of the “Big Pine” Radar system is already on the anvil for detecting missile threats. This acquisition is being seen as the forerunner to the futuristic systems for the active missile defences in the Indian air space which are currently absent.
The selection of the IL-76 aircraft as the airborne platform for the Radar is an appropriate choice as the Indian Air Force possesses adequate experience and infrastructure to operate the aircraft. The advanced technology dispenses with the rotating Radar. However, with the induction limited to only three systems for an equal number of aircraft, the schedules of AWACS operations will have to be limited to and kept focused for developing hostile scenarios only.