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.
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.
“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.