Friday, September 23, 2011

My Article in The Alpha Stories: Assessing Indian and Pakistani AEW&C Acquisitions

This is an updated draft of my analysis published in the May 2011 issue of The Alpha Stories, a magazine on the Indian Armed Forces. To read the original article, click on the image below.

The motive behind this essay is not to do a one-to-one comparison of Indian and Pakistani Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) options, but to understand the requirements that led to the decisions by both air forces on what aircraft to acquire as well as the operational scenario they will likely be used in.

It first needs to be understood that airborne radar is not the be-all and end-all of air warfare that it is thought to be. Rather, it is a system that overcomes several limitations of ground-based radar systems, by eliminating terrain shadows, increasing range (line of sight increases with altitude), and offering relative safety from attacks on account of its mobility and agility. The latter ability also permits rapid redeployment of the system at the most critical sector – but more on that later. Also, it is important to note that the radar itself is but one part of the system. Of equal importance are target interrogation and identification systems, electronic support measures, data processing computers, communications devices, command and control systems, and so on.

There are essentially two approaches to AEW&C – the first is to put everything into the aircraft, making it a stand-alone system capable of managing a large air battle by itself. This makes it very expensive, but it can be deployed anywhere on very short notice. This is why the E-3 Sentry and the A-50EI, with its Phalcon AEW&C system, cost so much. The other way is to merely put the radar on the aircraft, and use a dedicated datalink to transmit the information to a station on the ground that contains all the other facilities. This makes the package much cheaper, and in some cases more powerful – because ground-based data processing and battle management facilities are not restricted by the size and payload of the aircraft. However, the system is effectively undeployable, as it has to always operate in conjunction with a ground based system. The E-2 Hawkeye and Saab-2000 AEW are of the latter type.

So why did India and Pakistan choose to buy the A-50EI and Saab-2000 AEW respectively? The answer lies in both, their strategic needs, as well as their evaluation of how an aerial war in the subcontinent would be fought. In the late nineties, the Indian Air Force (IAF) achieved a quantum leap in its capabilities with the induction of the Su-30MKI. For the first time, it found itself with not only a decisive advantage over Pakistan, but also with the ability to take on and defeat the PLAAF. Whether it came to air superiority or deep interdiction tactical bombing, neither the PAF nor the PLAAF has anything in their inventories that could compare with it. At some level, I believe even the IAF was taken aback by the fearsome capabilities it had acquired! Procurement of force multipliers like tankers and AEW&C systems was the next logical step. And as far as AEW&C went, a system like the A-50EI AWACS was the obvious choice. It was inherently better suited to the offensive war the IAF was preparing to fight against Pakistan, most of it inside Pakistani airspace. On account of its deployability, it would be able to move forward with the IAF as it systematically destroyed the Pakistani aerial assets and their air defence network. At the same time, existing interceptors (MiG-29/MiG-23/MiG-21) and the ground-based air defence network were considered sufficient to deal with Pakistani attacks. On the other hand, in a war against China, The AWACS could be quickly deployed to plug gaps that were bound to arise in ground-based radar coverage and communications owing to attacks by Chinese fighters and surface to surface missiles. Moreover, it would be able to better isolate Chinese axes of attack and effectively concentrate numerically inferior IAF assets to intercept them, thus making more efficient use of sparse fighter resources. And lastly, because of the elimination of terrain shadows (which is especially important in the Himalayas) and superior target discrimination, it would be able to detect cruise missile attacks early, enabling point-defence surface-to-air missiles to focus along specific threat axes, as well as allowing more time for personnel and systems on the ground to seek shelter and aircraft to scramble from their bases. The DRDO AEW&C, a smaller system mounted on an Embraer EMB-145 airframe was likely designed to augment the A-50EI. Flying far forward of the A-50EI “motherships”, they would form the forward nodes of an airborne battle-management network where the latter assumed the command and control function.
Now let’s look at the technical reasons behind the IAF’s choice of the radar and airframe. The service leased a Russian Beriev A-50 for trials in 2000, but its marked inferiority to its Western counterparts and the purportedly high price the Russians were asking for it seems to have led to its rejection. The hunt for a suitable AEW&C system came to an end when Israel offered the far more advanced and modern EL/M-2075 Phalcon, and the US State Department expressed willingness to allow the transfer. The choice of the airframe to mount the radar on, however, seems to be puzzling at first. Airframes designed for civilian use are inherently better suited to AEW&C duties than high-wing military transports like the Il-76. Their rugged design is ideal for the tactical and strategic transport role, but in the AEW&C role, all this does is make them heavy and “draggy”, reducing fuel efficiency and time on station. However, the Il-76 came with distinct advantages. The airframe, the radome, and the mounting for the radome on the airframe had already been developed and tested. Plus, the fact that the Il-76 was already in service with the IAF offered obvious logistical advantages. It is a little more difficult to figure out the reason why the EMB-145 airframe was chosen for the DRDO AEW&C. There is very little information available on the topic, but there are very few airframes that have been tested with a radar antenna similar to the one developed by the DRDO, and it is likely that the Brazilians, apart from offering the cheaper solution, were more open to integrating their airframe with the Indian radar.

In contrast, the PAF’s strategy in the face of the overwhelming numerical and technological superiority its opponent enjoys has been to fight a defensive air war. For this purpose, the Saab-2000 with the Erieye radar is a fine choice. The Pakistani short range defence system is highly sophisticated, and lends itself well to integration with such aircraft. As volume search and target acquisition radars start being put out of action by IAF attacks, the Erieye could quickly link up with Sector Operations Centres (there are four) and plug gaps in coverage while flying safely inside Pakistan airspace. For example, the Erieye can directly link up with the Giraffe radar’s C3 system, which itself is integrated with RBS-70, Mistral, Stinger and Anza missiles, and keep fighting even if the radar itself is put out of action. Coupled with the mobility of the air defences, this would give Pakistani defences a shot in the arm and the ability to inflict severe attrition on a low-level attacking force. Strategic redeployment is a problem, but is not considered a pressing need since the PAF expects to fight a war only along one front.

While Pakistan’s purchase of an AEW aircraft was obviously a response to the Indian acquisition of the A-50EI, it is far from being a knee-jerk reaction.  Rather, it is a well thought-out procurement that was done after a thorough appreciation of the vulnerabilities of the Pakistani Air Force and air defence network. It maximises the strengths of this network, and addresses exactly those weakness that the IAF hopes to exploit with the quantum jump in capabilities it has acquired after the Kargil War. And is affordable to boot

For more information about the magazine, subscriptions, and contributions, please contact the editor at