Unsubstantiated reports, now emerging in the media, would suggest that the Indian Air Force (IAF) might have modified the specifications for the indigenous airborne early warning and control system (AWACS), including the radar and related equipment, in an effort to increase the payload. The mid-course change would appear to have left the country’s premier defence laboratory set up, the defence research and development organization (DRDO) scrambling to organize finances for the acquisition of a larger aerial platform. [Actually not unsubstantiated. It’s a fact that the IAF has formally approached the MoD and presented a new payload QR, with an observation that the platform would have to be reconsidered with the new payload].
According to reports, the IAF has recommended the use of a larger Boeing or Airbus-based platform, rather than the Embraer and Gulfstream planes that had earlier been short-listed for the programme by the DRDO. The shift to a larger platform, from a mid-sized one of the Embraer variety, pushes costs up by an additional 40-45%, and this apparently has forced DRDO to seek additional funds. [The IAF has, in fact, recommended either the Airbus-319/320 or the Boeing-737, and said that the Embraer has altitude and endurance limitations].
Domestic companies and laboratories currently working with the DRDO on the AWACS project include Bharat Electronics Ltd, the Defence Avionics Research Establishment, and the Electronics and Radar Development Establishment.
As part of a $1.1 billion deal, signed in 2004, Israel is to supply three Phalcon AWACS systems to India with its radar and other systems mounted on three Russian-built Il-76 aircraft. The first of these aircraft are due for delivery from mid-2007. [No, there are delays in the Phalcon integration. The first is likely to be delivered only by Feb-March 2008].
Reports would also suggest that the current AWACS project would, very likely, take another decade to complete, provided the design, specifications, as well as the platform are now frozen by the IAF. [The new project finishline has been extended from 2012 to 2016. I don’t think changing the platform should require shifting goalposts once again, though you never know. In April this year, it was reported that the indigenous AWACS had not passed muster with the IAF because the aircraft platform the suite was being built for was a business jet platform, with neither the ceiling altitude nor endurance requirement that the IAF wanted. The IAF had gone on to recommend that the programme (re-sanctioned in September 2004 with Rs 1,800 crore) shorten its proverbial horizons and deliver, instead, a “airborne battlefield surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance system”].
While some sources point fingers at the defence services for changing specifications mid-way too often, others point to the massive technology churn which the global arms industry is currently experiencing and argue that such mid-course changes cannot be helped. [The IAF wants the government to exercise its option of buying three-five more Phalcons. The IAF is resolute that its AWACS needs will only be fulfilled by a fleet of six-to-eight IAI Phalcons operating out of Agra (a sister squadron to 78 Sqn will be raised later this year) and has said as much to the Defence Ministry].
June 13: Correction: I found out today (13 June) that the information that the IAF has recommended a new platform may actually not be formal yet. It has been discussed but not presented to the MoD. The only thing that has been presented to the MoD officially is an increased QR for the radar.