Indian Air Force Wants Home-Grown AWACS To Double As Tanker

DRDO-AIRBUS AWACS

While the Indian Air Force kickstarts a fresh hunt for flight refueling aircraft, India’s $3.1 billion indigenous airborne warning and control system (AWACS) program has also gathered steam. In an interesting — if not baffling — twist, the IAF has officially asked the Defence Research & Development Organisation to move forward in such a way that the resulting AWACS jets are fitted to play the additional role  of mid-air refueling tankers.

The IAF directive throws up concerns over cost and time overruns in a priority project, though the DRDO exudes its traditional optimism on the demand.

Speaking exclusively to Livefist, DRDO chief S. Christopher said, “While we are developing the complete AWACS system based on the Airbus A330 platform, the IAF has asked us to add the refueling capability. This could be for escort aircraft or other situations where such a dual role functionality could be critical. We are in discussions with Airbus regarding this.”

Neither the IAF nor the DRDO have commented on the possibility that the amalgamation of airborne early warning and refuelling roles could result in suboptimal realisation of one or both. What it does do is glaringly highlight the IAF’s pressing need for both capabilities. Despite a persistent stress on the need for more refuelling and airborne sensor assets, the IAF and MoD have stumbled repeatedly in their effort to conclude contracts.

While India’s quest for eight flight refueling aircraft is all set to be a clash between the Airbus A330 MRTT and the Boeing KC-46, the DRDO’s indigenous AWACS platform will be Airbus A330, a selection made four years ago. In 2015, the Indian government officially approved the program and sanctioned finances to the tune of over $800 million for costs that would include modifications and the first two A330 aircraft.

Christopher reveals that the percentage increase in cost of kitting up the Airbus A330 for AWACS-tanker dual functionality is roughly 17 per cent.

“Because of the additional tanker functionality requirement, there have been some delays, but we’ve made up for it on our side by completing developing of the radome antenna that will be the centrepiece of the AWACS,” Christopher reveals. Built at the Centre for Airborne Systems (CABS) in Bengaluru, the 12.5 tonne antenna is near ready for integration on an A330 once modifications on the first aircraft are complete.

With work now in progress to develop India’s AWACS with tanker functionality, it remains unclear whether this could have an impact on the soon to be floated tanker contest between Airbus and Boeing. Airbus, which emerged a winner in two aborted contests for IAF tankers (Boeing  didn’t compete in those first two contests) appears to have something of an advantage with the Indian AWACS program choosing to fold in a tanker role into its mission profile. However, as Livefist has noted before, there could be several other factors at play too.

Christopher adds, “In Bengaluru we’ve finished the radome. So, we are very confident of moving quickly. The aircraft manufacturer won’t have to wait for us. They will have questions on performance and structural rigidity, but we are working concurrently, so those issues have been sorted out too. Is it safe to fly? Those answers we don’t have to worry about now because we have moved quickly — we can show and prove ourselves that we are capable of doing that and we’ve done it. We’ve ticked all the boxes so far.”

For the DRDO chief, the program hits close to home. Himself a product of the Centre for Airborne  Systems that’s building India’s AWACS — and a sensor scientist by training — this is additionally a prestige  project for Christopher and one that he cannot afford to let slip. Christopher retires in May this year, though sources say his tenure as DRDO chief could be extended.

NETRA AEW&C

India currently  operates three Israeli A-50 PHALCON AWACS jets based on the Il-76 platform. The Indian Air Force last year took delivery of its first DRDO-Embraer AEW&C aircraft Netra based on the ERJ-145 jet platform. Livefist can confirm that the second aircraft has completed flight test and is likely to be handed over to the Indian Air Force next month in Bhatinda with defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman overseeing the proceedings.

“The IAF has been using the Netra extensively. They’ve suggested a few improvements, which we’ve incorporated in the second aircraft that will shortly be delivered to them,” Christopher says. The improvements include fine-tuning of the surveillance radar. The IAF’s urgency for more eye-in-the-sky aircraft has compelled it on a quest for two more PHALCON type aircraft from Israel.

The third Embraer platform will remain with DRDO, as earlier reported by Livefist. Interestingly, the DRDO is now looking at the option of selling the aircraft to a foreign customer as a major diplomatic gesture.

“We are weighing the possibility of giving it to a nearby country as a diplomatic gesture. Let us see if it works out,” Christopher says.

The Indian Air Force has an officially projected requirement for 15 AWACS aircraft. The current three Israeli PHALCON AWACS will be augmented with six indigenous A330-based AWACS with two additional jets as options, plus plans for two more PHALCON jets, making a total of 13 aircraft. The two Netra, when upgraded with the IAF’s stated improvements, will provide greater cover, though not the 360-degree cover the IAF wants from all fifteen jets in the class.

PHALCON AWACS

“In a country like ours, the IAF needs 360 coverage. The Netra AEW&C doesn’t have that. But this is also a far lower cost program. So while we build the higher performance AWACS to fulfill the IAF’s requirement, we will continue to support them in their use of the Netra. The aircraft are extremely agile and have demonstrated remarkable performance in the hands of our IAF crews,” Christopher says.

7 thoughts on “Indian Air Force Wants Home-Grown AWACS To Double As Tanker”

  1. Good to see IAF using NETRA extensively and providing constructive feedback. This is the way to go towards increasing local content.
    The lessons learnt here will also be applied to bigger planes minimising risks .

  2. Actually, the requirement for the AWACS to have a refueling capability makes eminent sense from the perspective of gassing up the fighter escorts for the AWACS bird. This would enable the fighter escorts to stay on station for extended periods of time.

    On the other hand, the poor fighter jocks will have to make do with bottles to relieve themselves. Maybe DRDO’s brain talent can get to work on a pee suit for these fighter pilots…..

    Re NETRA, why donate a bird to a friendly country when many more NETRA birds are needed? Donations can be provided after IAF requirements have been met and crucial capability gaps filled.

  3. Shiv,

    I rarely get to read your work, and its always a pleasure because you write so well and professionally. This is very informative. I was telling Ramana I don’t feel I can comment on this air refueling thing as US Navy is doing something even more stupid, using its already understrength F-18 squadrons to provide buddy tankage. I also cant comment on the moronic idea of giving one Embrarer for “diplomatic” reasons when we need more AEW/AWACS and ISR aircraft. Maybe they can give the 8 incoming AWACS to – say – Somalia as a diplomatic gesture.

  4. We need to increase number of Netra . Quantity has a quality of its own. A few more of them flying will make it possible for us to have redundancy. AWACS will be targetted hard, planes like Airbus will be easy to take out if a swarm of missiles air to air are fired .

  5. And with this aircraft/awacs is doomed to fail. No other country does that because it does not work. After five years IAF will tell you that this AWACS lacks range does not have enough space for future growth and that is why we need to buy a foreign AWACS.
    Remember arjun, Army asked for a lot changes in Mk1, constructive input. Like install a plough for removing mines. No other MBT has that. After few years, arjun mk2 was derided for being too heavy!

  6. Major problem in this case is ….. Indian scientists are not able to develop our own heavy lift aircraft….. We are requesting airbus to modify as per IAF requirement…. Why our politicians are not understanding????? We need self reliance in defence sector…. Our scientists can think about Mars and moon mission …. We are self dependent in satelite and space technology (but we are again looking towards Russia and USA for space mission) …. But we are unable to produce a single fighter and transport aircraft…..
    We have visionary and educated youth …. Government must start research facilities in all universities all across India.
    We must achieve self dependence in defence sector for our country’s larger interest in

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