NEW DELHI: Already way behind China, India is struggling to even keep up with Pakistan in the critical arena of AWACS (airborne warning and control systems) aircraft that can detect incoming fighters, cruise missiles and drones much before ground-based radars as well as direct fighters in combat operations.

AWACS or ‘Eyes in the Sky’ are considered “major force-multipliers” in modern-day warfare due to their capability to provide early warning about hostile threats at ranges over 400km in all-weather conditions, as also act as autonomous command and control centres. India is yet to fully get its act together on this front. For one, the new indigenous Rs 5,113 crore AWACS-India project is still languishing “largely on the drawing board”, sources said. For another, the Rs 2,520 crore AEW&C (airborne early-warning and control system) project for ‘miniAWACS’ is still months away from completion after repeatedly missing deadlines since being approved in 2004.

IAF currently has just three Phalcon AWACS, with Israeli early-warning radars mounted in domes on top of IL-76 aircraft, which were acquired under the Rs 5,042 crore tripartite deal among India, Israel and Russia in 2004. The Phalcons do pack quite a punch, with 360-degree coverage over a 400km range. But while the long-pending $1 billion deal for two more Phalcons is yet to be inked, audit watchdog CAG has blasted the “sub-optimal utilisation” of the three existing ones due to poor planning and serviceability.

 In contrast, China has over 20 AWACS, including the new KJ-500 ones that can track over 60 aircraft at ranges up to 470km. Pakistan has four Swedish Saab-2000 AEW&C aircraft and four Chinese-origin ZDK-03 (KJ-200) AWACS.
India’s indigenous efforts to plug the operational gaps have been dogged by delays. DRDO officials said the three AEW&C aircraft, with 240-degree coverage radars fitted on three smaller Brazilian Embraer-145 jets, are now undergoing final trials. “There were delays due to several factors, including a 27-month one since IAF wanted additional operational requirements,” said an official.

The bigger worry is the AWACS-India project, which will involve mounting 360 degree coverage AESA (active electronically scanned array) radars on two Airbus A-330 wide-body jets. “It will take 5-7 years to build the first two AWACS,” said an official.

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