The Indian Air Force is set to acquire six state-of-the-art airborne warning and control aircraft in a deal worth close to Rs.11,000 crore with the Cabinet Committee on Security giving a green light on Wednesday.
The aircraft themselves are likely to be hand-me-down A-321 jetliners from Air India which will then be structurally modified to carry a made-in-India radar developed by the Defence Research and Development Radar.
The DRDO radar will be a modernised variant of the existing active electronically steered array (AESA) radar installed on two Netra airborne warning aircraft already deployed by the IAF.
The Indian Air Force also operates 3 larger, A-50 EI aircraft procured from Russia which are fitted with the Israeli EL/W-2090 'Phalcon' radar system.
An active electronically scanned array (AESA) is a computer-controlled radar array in which radio beams can be electronically steered to point in different directions without moving the antenna. AESA radars are more accurate, more reliable and offer better detection capability when compared with legacy systems.
The radars which will be installed on the A-321 aircraft which will be transferred to the Indian Air Force will ensure 360 degree coverage of hundreds of kilometres of airspace around the aircraft, more comprehensive than the present capability of the IAF's Netra jets.
Airborne warning aircraft came into sharp focus during the India-Pakistan aerial duel along the Line of Control and International Border on February 27, 2019. IAF fighters, deployed to intercept incoming Pakistan Air Force strike formations relied heavily on support from the IAF's Netra and A-50 jets which tracked the movement of PAF fighters and vectored IAF defenders to attempt an intercept. It was intelligence gathered from an IAF airborne warning and control aircraft that led the Indian Air Force to conclude that Wing Commander Varthaman had intercepted and shot down a PAF F-16 before he was shot down himself.
The entire project is expected to take up to seven years to complete with the prototype of the first A-321 aircraft expected in approximately four years.