The arrival of the AWACS (Air Borne Warning and Control System) is a formidable leap for the Indian Air Force (IAF) in initiating a new structure in the air defence network for India but only a small step towards filling this capability gap. The term generically means an airborne radar system designed to detect aircraft. With the advantage of high altitude, the radars can scan air spaces, over the horizon, hundred of miles away and the returns can be effectively treated to distinguish between friendly and hostile aircraft. Linked with appropriate communication networks, it can direct and control both defensive and offensive air operations. Fighter interceptors can be guided to engage intruding hostile targets and counter-strikes can be launched to neutralize sources. Thematically, it has evolved as a platform for surveillance, command and control and battle management.
The IAF has been clamouring for this system for over three decades spurred with a view to not only augment its surveillance potential but equally essentially, as a force multiplier. The latter construes economies of effort in marshalling resources. During the Cold War and in the era of resource shortages, the Indian government had pursued an indigenous development of the system under the aegis of the DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organisation). This project termed as the ASWAC (Air Borne Surveillance Warning and Control Systems) was eventually halted and abandoned for good when in 1999, the mother AVRO aircraft crashed in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu with the experimental system on board. 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 variation of the IL-76 aircraft but did not find it satisfactory for Indian needs.
India’s air defence network can only receive a favourable appraisal, if it can effectively engage and neutralize a hostile intruder well beyond its defined protected air space. It contains a suitably linked chain of ground-based fixed and movable radars that control an equally distributed chain of fighter aircraft and surface-to-air missiles to engage the intruder. Although upgraded over the years, to provide for an appropriate reaction time to cater for threats such as an ingress at ultra-low altitudes, some difficulties in reduced warning periods may still exist in the northern Himalayan region due to difficulties in locating a Radar. Whilst in peacetime, this may be adequate as the national boundaries are the limiting criterion, in the event of hostilities, however, the forward shifting battle zones would also need to be managed. The AWACS would purposefully provide this edge.
The Israeli Phalcon Radar mounted on the Russian IL-76 aircraft equipped with the more powerful PS-90A engines, for the Indian AWACS will easily possess a capacity to react to hostile targets at distances of 500kms from its position in the air. As a formidable constituent of the mother network, operating at 30,000 feet the Radar has the capacity to scan from ground level to 40,000 feet. The higher altitudes are already closely monitored by ground-based systems. The operations are supported by on-board ECM (Electronic Counter Measures) and ECCM (Electronic Counter Counter Measures) systems for electronic warfare. Passive Comint devices record data up to a thousand kilometres. An ECM package is incorporated for-self protection. However, contrary to a view circulating in the media, the AWACS are neither designed nor equipped to deal with the threats from either a small radar signature cruise missile or a high trajectory ICBM/IRBM. The latter would be easily spotted by the ground-based network well before they come to the notice of AWACS. On ballistic missile defences, therefore, India is working separately to meet the challenges.
A crucial aspect is the awareness that it is not a platform to remain perennially in the air, performing the duties of a combat air patrol. With a motley fleet of three by 2010, the systems are only sufficient for contingencies and will need to be judiciously protected and utilized to develop expertise.
This induction should not be construed as an arms race as the development of a similar system has been in progress in China, well before India chose to induct the Phalcon AWACS. In fact, the Israeli manufacturers had initially worked on a Chinese version on a similar Russian platform which was stopped at the behest of the US government. Since then they have worked continuously, in concert with the Russian manufactures to produce as many as ten aircraft. In the case of Pakistan, the primary issue is one of acquisition by India and not of a qualitative change in their threat perception from India.