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Powering the Skies

Various developments on the military aviation front augurs well for the capability development of the Indian Air Force as they scurry to augment their resources in the skies

September 16, 2021 By Lt. General P.C. Katoch (Retd) Photo(s): By SP Guide Pubns, Airbus Defence and Space
The Author is Former Director General of Information Systems and A Special Forces Veteran, Indian Army



India is powering the skies with more “eyes in the sky”. News reports of September 10 revealed that the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on September 8 approved the 10,990 crore procurement project for indigenously building six airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft to enhance the surveillance capabilities of the Indian Air Force (IAF) along the borders. The AEW&C project was accorded the initial acceptance of necessity (AoN) by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) in December 2020.

The project to be executed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) involves mounting the indigenous active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars with 360-degree coverage (AESA) on six Airbus 321 passenger aircraft from the existing fleet of Air India. Since the Airbus 321 passenger aircraft are to be bought from Air India, it will also help to some extent, though marginally, in making up the 38,366 crore debt of Air India as per government data of financial year 2020.

The new indigenously built airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) system mounted on the Airbus A321 aircraft is expected to be more advanced than existing systems

The IAF currently operates three Israeli Phalcon airborne warning and control system (AWACS) with 360 degree radar coverage mounted on Russian IL-76 heavy-lift planes. The system has a range of 400 km. In addition, IAF also has two indigenous Netra AEW&C aircraft with 240 degree coverage radars fitted on smaller Brazilian Embraer-145 jets having 250-km range. The Netra AEW&C system was developed by the DRDO. The new AEW&C system mounted on the Airbus A321 aircraft is expected to be more advanced than existing systems of the IAF.

The IAF needs more “eyes in the sky” to cover the eastern and western sectors including during offensive operations. China has about 30 x AEW&C aircraft including Kong Jing-2000, KJ-200 and KJ-500 aircraft while Pakistan has 8-10 Chinese Karakoram Eagle ZDK-03 AWACS and Swedish Saab 2000 AEW&C aircraft. India certainly needs to address operational voids more urgently. In the instant case the AoN was accorded in December 2020, the CCS nod given in September 2021 after a gap of nine months and signing of the deal will probably take few more months. Considering our “eye in the sky” capability vis-à-vis China and Pakistan, can we not shorten our procedures?

Concurrently the CCS also approved on September 8, procurement of 56 x Airbus C295MW aircraft to boost IAF’s troop and equipment lift capability to replace the ageing fleet of HS 748 Avro aircraft. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh told journalists on November 9 that the estimated value of the contract, when signed would be 22,000 crore ($3 billion).

CCS also approved procurement of 56 x Airbus C295MW aircraft to boost IAF’s troop and equipment lift capability

European aerospace major Airbus Defence and Space and Tata Advanced Systems Limited (TASL) will jointly execute the C295 project to equip the IAF with the new transport aircraft under the Make-in-India initiative in the aerospace sector. Airbus will supply the first 16 aircraft in flyaway condition while the remaining 40 will be assembled in India by TASL.

Above will be India’s first private sector project for manufacturing military aircraft ending the monopoly of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and first ever military contract that Airbus will bag in India. The C295MW aircraft is a transport aircraft of 5-10 tonne capacity with contemporary technology. The aircraft has a rear ramp door for quick reaction and para-dropping of troops and cargo.


According to the procurement plan, 16 x C295 powered by two Pratt & Whitney Canada PW127G turboprop engines (part of the PW100 family) will be delivered directly to the IAF in flyaway condition from Spain within 48 months of signing of the contract. The balance 40 x C295 will be manufactured in India by the TATA Consortium within 10 years of signing of the contract; implying in all it may take about 12 years for the IAF to induct all the C295 aircraft. All aircraft are to be installed with indigenous Electronic Warfare Suite.

The configuration of both the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA)-Mk2 and the fifth-generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) having been frozen and designs completed

Before completion of deliveries, ‘D’ Level servicing facility Maintenance Repair and Overhaul (MRO) for C295MW aircraft are scheduled to be setup in India, which will act as a regional MRO hub for various variants of C295 aircraft. The project will also give a boost to several Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) that will be involved in manufacturing of parts of the aircraft.

(Left to Right) Rafale and Tejas

According to another media report of September 10, France will deliver three Rafale fighters per month for the next three months with the last of the 36 contracted omni-role fighters with India specific enhancements to be delivered in January 2022. 26 x 4.5 generation Rafale fighters are already operational with the IAF. Already India specific enhancements have been included in Hammer air to ground, SCALP land attack and Meteor air to air missiles used by Rafale with more range, more height and more accuracy. However, it is the 36th Rafale fighter that will be equipped with all (quantity 13) India specific enhancements to make the platform more lethal. It is only after the 36th fighter has landed after testing all India specific enhancements with some technologies having Israeli origins that the previous 35 fighters will be fitted with all the enhancements.

Another good news is that with the configuration of both the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA)-Mk2 and the fifth-generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) having been frozen and designs completed, steel cutting for the LCA Mk2 will be beginning soon. While Tejas-Mk2 is called the 4.5 generation, AMCA is called the 5th generation fighter jet program of India. The launch of LCA Mk2 is likely to be in August 2022 and its first flight likely in 2023.