India’s state-owned defense R&D agency, Defence Research and Development Organsiation (DRDO) has been given greenlight to develop a new Airborne Early Warning & Control (AEW&C) aircraft based on the Airbus A320 airliner platform.
The approval for the project, worth Rs. 10,500 crore (Rs 1.4 billion), was accorded by the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC), the highest decision-making body of the Indian Ministry of Defence, on Dec. 17.
According to the plan, DRDO will acquire six Airbus A320 airliners operated by India’s national carrier Air India and integrate them with indigenously-developed 360-degree AESA (active electronically scanned array) radar, sensors and mission systems after necessary airframe modifications and deliver them to Indian Air Force (IAF). The airframe modification of the aircraft will be carried out at Airbus’ facilities in France as per IAF/DRDO specifications.
There were plans earlier to develop an AEW&C aircraft based on the larger Airbus A330-200 widebody platform. The A330 platform was selected in 2015 following a request for proposals from the DRDO with Boeing not responding to the RFP. The aircraft was to be fitted with an indigenously-developed AESA radar housed in an external radome.
In November 2019, DAC granted Acceptance of Necessity (AoN) for two new Airbus A330 aircraft platforms for the program. The reports at the time suggested that the militarized Airbus A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) aircraft platform will be procured from the program with the aircraft also capable of refueling other aircraft mid-air in addition to its AEW&CS role..
The status of this project, designated as AWACS (I), is not currently known and it is also not clear whether the new project replaces the A330-based AWACS (I) project. The new A320-based AEW&C aircraft is expected to sport a dorsal array system similar to the IAF’s operational DRDO Netra AEW&C system rather than the radome planned for the AWACS (I) program.
India currently operates three large A-50EI Phalcon aircraft whish is based on Russian Ilyushin Il-76 strategic military transport aircraft and equipped with Israeli EL/W-2090 Phalcon AEW radar system developed by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and its Elta subsidiary. These aircraft were procured through a tri-partite deal signed between Israel, India, and Russia. There were also reports earlier this year that India is planning to procure two additional A-50EI Phalcon aircraft under a USD 1 billion deal.
In addition to the three Phalcons, IAF also operates two Netra AEW&C systems developed indigenously by DRDO’s Centre for Airborne Systems (CABS). Netra AEW&C is based on Brazilian Embraer ERJ145 business jet platform.