It’s the latest in India’s meandering search for more airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft.
Six Airbus A320 airliners operated by India’s national carrier Air India will be modified, integrated with sensors and delivered to the Indian Air Force as new airborne early warning & control (AEW&C) aircraft as part of a new plan cleared today. The Ministry of Defence today approved a Rs 10,500 crore (Rs 1.4 billion) program in which India’s Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) will integrate radars and sensor on six Airbus A320 commercial airliners from national carrier Air India’s current fleet. The six aircraft are to be sent to France, where they will be refurbished and modified to Indian Air Force/DRDO specifications.
If plans remain on track, the six aircraft will join the IAF to add AEW muscle to the pair of Embraer-DRDO AEW&C Netra jets in service and three older PHALCON AWACS jets. It is not clear if this new move, revealed in the Indian press on Wednesday, supplants earlier plans by the DRDO to deliver an Airbus A330 based AWACS system — though the two systems are significantly different in capability and scope.
Livefist can confirm that the A320 based AEW&C platform will sport a derivative of the dorsal antenna system fitted on the Netra jets, and not a radome solution as has been speculated since the news broke Wednesday. In the words of a scientist familiar with the program, it will involve “trying past experience with additional features”.
In 2015, the Indian MoD cleared a Rs 5113 crore program to build an Airbus A330 based AWACS system. While work on the dorsal radome has made progress at the DRDO’s Centre for Airborne Systems (CABS) in Bengaluru, a contract for the aircraft platforms has remained elusive five years after the DRDO was cleared to begin procurement procedures.
The indigenous AWACS program itself has had an odd journey, with the IAF in 2018 asking the DRDO to ensure the AWACS platform it delivers can also double as a mid-air refueling tanker. The request was part of the frustrations the IAF was experiencing in trying to nail down a tanker purchase after a series of contest aborts. That separate quest for tankers has left the IAF exasperated enough to consider junking an outright purchase attempt and seriously look at the option to least mid-air tankers for the medium term.