Ideally, the Indian Air Force (IAF) would like to procure a total of eight A-50EI PHALCON airborne early warning & control (AEW & C) systems using the Ilyushin IL-76MF airframe, the longstanding spat between Uzbekistan’s Tashkent Aircraft Production Organisation (TAPO) and Russia’s Rosoboronexport State Corp over the intended re-location of the IL-76’s final assembly line at Aviastar-SP’s facility in Ulyanovsk inside Russia has now virtually eliminated all chances of additional IL-76TD airframes being ordered for the IAF in the near future. Consequently, although the IAF had negotiated and finalised a follow-on US$1.7 billion contract to acquire another three A-50EI PHALCONs by November 2008, contract signature could not take place due to the TAPO-Rosoboronexport spat. Recently, however, officials from both Rosoboronexport State Corp and Ilyushin Finance Corp gave firm assurance to the IAF that a new-generation successor to the IL-76MF, called IL-476, featuring a fully-digital fly-by-wire flight control system, glass cockpit avionics and PS-90A-76 turbofans, will be available from 2012. Consequently, the follow-on order for three A-50EI PHALCONs is now expected to be re-negotiated with both Rosoboronexport and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI).
Presently based at the IAF’s Agra Air Force Station as part of a newly raised No50 Squadron, alongside No78 Squadron, which presently operates six IL-78MKI aerial refuelling tankers, the IAF’s two A-50EI PHALCONs arrived in India on May 25, 2009 and March 25, 2010, respectively. The third platform is due to arrive in Agra later this month. For the past 23 months, the two A-50E/PHALCONs have been utilised by the IAF for perfecting the concepts of airborne battlespace management involving far larger airborne aircraft packages—up to 36 at a time and involving air dominance combat aircraft like the Su-30MKIs as well as dedicated air interdiction assets like the Jaguar IS and MiG-27M. It was in November 2003 that India inked a $1.5 billion contract with Rosoboronexport and IAI for the first three AEW & C platforms. While TAPO built the IL-76MF airframes, Russia’s Beriev Taganrog Aviation Scientific and Engineering Complex (TANTK) was responsible for customising the airframe structurally, while IAI is supplying and installing the mission sensor and mission management suites.
The A-50E/PHALCON’s 400km-range EL/M-2075 active electronically-scanned array (AESA) radar (comprising three antenna arrays mounted in a triangular manner) is contained within a radome above the fuselage. The electronically-steered beam provides 360-degree coverage around the aircraft and it carries up to 10 mission management personnel for airspace surveillance and airborne battlespace management. BARCO of Belgium has supplied the 20-inch AMLCDs for the mission management suit, with Tadiran SpectraLINK supplying the secure digital data links. In a future network-centric warfare scenario, the IAF envisages the deployment of its A-50E/PHALCONs as theatre-based airborne command-and-control posts undertaking strategic airspace surveillance-cum airspace management tasks, and directing the smaller ISTAR platforms (manned and unmanned) to coordinate and direct the IAF’s sector-based offensive/defensive operations that will include the 24-hour surveillance of friendly airspace as well as that above the friendly ground forces’ forward and deep battle areas; denial of both the strategic and tactical airspace to hostile combat aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), thus ensuring total knowledge-based air dominance; dramatically improving the situational awareness of friendly airpower assets, and coordinating the conduct of offensive, effects-based deep strike and battlefield air interdiction sorties by IAF combat aircraft.
In addition to the A-50EI PHALCONs, the IAF is also going for smaller and indigenous AEW & C solutions. Financial sanction worth Rs18 billion for this R & D venture was given in October 2004. In a path-breaking development, Brazil’s Embraer and India’s Defence Research & development Organisation (DRDO) along with the DRDO’s DRDO’s Bangalore-based Centre for Airborne Systems (CABS), had on July 3, 2008 inked a $210 million agreement to jointly develop an AEW & CS platform for the IAF. Under this deal, Embraer has modified the first of three its EMB-145 regional jet aircraft to carry dual S-band AESA-based antenna units--developed by the CABS--on the aircraft’s fuselage. On February 21 Embraer rolled out the first AEW & CS platform in green condition. The aircraft has since started undergoing intensive ground- and flight-tests. The ferry flight to India is scheduled for the second quarter of this year, following which installation of the DRDO-developed on-board mission management suite will commence. The full-fledged AEW & CS will be flight-tested in India by the IAF from 2012, with Cassidian of Germany providing systems integration consultancy. Service entry is expected by 2016. The IAF has projected a requirement for 14 such AEW & C platforms.
When equipped with a roof-mounted in-flight refuelling probe, the AEW & CS will have an eight-hour endurance that will include three hours for transit and six hours of on-station operational deployment. Thus, two such platforms will be able to conduct operational sorties over a given sector in four duty-cycles of six hours each, which will give each platform an individual time-on-ground of 3.5 hours between each deployment, while keeping one additional AEW & CS platform on standby at all times. Assuming 75% serviceability, a minimum of four such platforms will be required for round-the-clock operations in one sector/theatre. The AEW & CS’ roof-mounted S-band AESA-based radar will operate within the 2GHz to 4GHz bandwidth. The AESA radar will provide 270-degree airspace surveillance coverage and have an instrumental range of 450km and detection range of 350km in a dense hostile electronic warfare environment. The mission sensor suite will also include an L-band IFF transponder. Inside the AEW & CS will be five tandem-mounted multifunction display/processor consoles that will make up the Central Tactical System (CTS) for providing tactical data management solutions via tactical aids, cues, alerts and bookkeeping functions. The platform will also have a communications suite comprising dual HF and five sets of V/UHF radios (developed by the DRDO’s Bangalore-based Defence Avionics Research Establishment, or DARE) for enabling the exchange of tactical data with friendly land, sea and air forces as well as communicating with civilian ATC networks. A roof-mounted Ku-band SATCOM-based data link and twin fuselage-mounted data-links will provide automatic clear or secure communications channels. The data link will be used for relaying information such as tracking cues, contact range, bearing, velocity, altitude and intercept vectors to friendly airborne combat aircraft, while the IAF’s ground-based regional Air Defence Control Centres (ADCC) will be networked with the AEW & C platform via the Ground Interface Segment (EGIS) that will provide two-way exchange of data between the airborne AEW & CS platform and ground-based sector operations centres (SOC). For self-protection, the AEW & CS will have on board a fully integrated defensive aids suite (housed within two outward protruding fuselage sections) that is now being co-developed by DARE and Cassidian, and which will include multi-spectral optronic sensors and an ESM suite, designed for the protection of aircraft against infra-red/laser-guided MANPADS). This will in turn be fully integrated with wingtip-mounted lightweight chaff/flare countermeasures dispensing systems.
The Indian Navy, meanwhile, has zeroed in on two possible contenders—Boeing’s B.737-based AEW & CS and IAI’s G-550 CAEW & CS—for fulfilling its requirement for four shore-based AEW & C platforms. The B.737-based AEW & CS is based on Boeing’s B.737-700IGW airframe and was originally developed to meet the Royal Australian Air Force's requirement for such platforms under Project Wedgetail. The aircraft uses the Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems' multi-role electronically-scanned array (MESA) radar, which is located on a dorsal fin on top of the fuselage. To date, this AEW & CS has been ordered by Australia (six units), South Korea (four units) and Turkey (six units). IAI’s Gulfstream G-550-based conformal airborne early warning and control system (CAEW & CS), on the other hand, is currently in service with the air forces of Israel and Singapore, and comes equipped with the ELTA-built EL/W-2085 system, and uses dual-band (L and S) AESA antennae at the nose and tail, with large slab-sided arrays on the fuselage sides. Together, these give 360° airspace coverage without the complication and drag of a rotodome above the fuselage. Each CAEW & CS carries six operators, and also has ESM antennae under the tail and wingtips, and above the nose, with a SATCOM array atop the vertical tail. Radar, ESM and COMINT data is collected and fused to give a fully correlated and synthetic air situation picture. The aircraft’s structural, aerodynamic and power modifications, including two additional generators and a low-drag liquid cooling system, are all installed on the aircraft by Gulfstream Aerospace prior to delivery to ELTA, and the mission sensors/management suite is then installed in country by IAI’s Bedek Aviation Group. The CAEW & CS offers an unrefuelled mission endurance of nine hours when operating at an altitude of 41,000 feet (12,500 metres) and 185km (100nm) away from its parent air base.—Prasun K. Sengupta