(This was originally posted in Hindustan Times by Rahul Singh)
The Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) on Wednesday cleared a Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) proposal to develop new airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft for the Indian Air Force (IAF) using Airbus jets bought from Air India, people familiar with the developments said on Thursday.
The project is estimated to be worth around ₹11,000 crore, said one of the officials cited above. It was cleared by the top security panel at its meeting on Wednesday along with the much-delayed purchase of 56 C-295 medium transport aircraft to replace the IAF’s ageing fleet of Avro-748 planes. The C-295 project is estimated to be worth ₹22,000 crore. IAF inducted its first indigenously developed AEW&C system, mounted on a Brazilian Embraer-145 jet, in February 2017, beefing up its capability to detect enemy aircraft and missiles. The Netra AEW&C system was developed by DRDO and has a range of around 200 km.
The new AEW&C system cleared by the cabinet committee on Wednesday, most likely to be mounted on the Airbus A321 aircraft, is expected to be more advanced than the Netra system, the official said. Currently, two Netra systems are in service. IAF also operates three Israeli Phalcon airborne warning and control system (AWACS) mounted on Russian IL-76 heavy-lift planes. The system has a range of 400 km. Experts have said IAF needs more such systems to cover the eastern and western sectors during offensive operations. The approval for the new AEW&C jets comes at a time when the government has sharpened its focus on promoting self-reliance in the defence manufacturing sector and positioning itself as an exporter of military hardware.
Airbus Defence and Space and Tata Advanced Systems Limited (TASL) will jointly execute the C-295 project to equip the air force 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.
In the last one year, the government has imposed a ban on the import of 209 defence items that will be implemented progressively from 2021 to 2025. AEW&C systems are covered under that ban. From raising foreign direct investment (FDI) in defence manufacturing to creating a separate budget to buy locally-made military hardware, the government has taken a raft of measures to boost self-reliance in the defence sector over the last two years.
It has also notified two lists of weapons and equipment that cannot be imported. Other than AEW&C systems, the 209 weapons and systems that cannot be imported include artillery guns, missile destroyers, ship-borne cruise missiles, light combat aircraft, long-range land attack cruise missiles, basic trainer aircraft, specified types of helicopters and next-generation corvettes. India has set aside ₹70,221 crore this year for domestic defence procurement, accounting for 63% of the military’s capital budget. Last year, the ministry spent over ₹51,000 crore, or 58% of the capital budget, on domestic purchases.