Pakistan has quietly inducted a new SAAB 2000-based Erieye airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft. With this new aircraft, serial number ‘23058’, the Pakistan Air Force’s Erieye fleet has grown to around nine.
The Indian Air Force (IAF), which operates three Russian IL-76 ‘Phalcon’ AWACS and two Embraer Netra early warning aircraft, is already outnumbered by the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), which also operates the Chinese ZDK03 Karakoram Eagle AWACS.
Armed with deep penetration and long-range radars, AWACS controls the battle theatre in times of hostilities by looking into the enemy territory and providing advance information about the movement of the enemy’s air assets.
According to reports, the aircraft was inducted into the service at the beginning of 2024. The aircraft was part of a ceremony to mark the induction of several new types of aircraft, like the Chengdu J-10 CE ‘Dragon’ multirole fighters and ex-Belgian Air Force C-130 H Hercules airlifters.
The news outlet confirmed that the seven aircraft have been visually confirmed, which could take the number of flying radars in the PAF’s fleet to nine.
The Erieye AEW&Cs have been purchased over three orders. The PAF signed its first order in 2006 for six AEW&Cs (plus one standard SAAB 2000) for US $1.15 billion. But after the 2005 earthquake, Pakistan downscaled the order to four aircraft.
In 2012, PAF lost three of the four aircraft in a terrorist attack on Mihas Airbase. One was written off, and two others were severely damaged. The PAF restored the damaged aircraft internally.
The SAAB Erieye AEW&C aircraft were used during the Pakistan counter-strike on February 27, 2019, to target an Indian brigade headquarters and other installations in Nowshera. Incidentally, India had earlier registered a diplomatic protest over the sale of Swedish aircraft to Pakistan.
These aircraft were used in Operation Swift Retort on February 27 to direct and control 25 fighter jets toward targets in India. These aircraft provided a real-time view of the battlefield to PAF and the location of the Indian Air Force’s assets.
In May 2020, Saab revealed that it secured an AEW&C deal for US $160.5 million from an unnamed buyer and that the delivery would take place between 2020 and 2023. Now, the customer is believed to be PAF. The latest Erieye in PAF are serial numbers’ 20-057′ and ’23-058′.
AEW&C can carry out surveillance and reconnaissance. Apart from this, the AEW&C also acts as Command and Control for fighter jets in the air. They capture real-time information and can fuse them with ground-based command centers. The real-time communication and electronic intelligence inputs make them indispensable for offensive air operations and air defense.
The other advantage AEW&CS has is its moving surveillance platform, making it difficult for the enemy’s anti-radiation missile to target. Its long range and detection capabilities give a 360-degree sky view and can track many aircraft simultaneously.
During an offensive mission, the fighter jets will fly along with AWACS (sensor), reducing the time in sensor to shooter loop, as the offensive fighter (shooter) complement moves along with it.
Pakistan has one advantage over its nuclear-armed neighbor – AWACS. India has a vast landmass, and it also calls for a greater number of AWACS to create a network-enabled and network-centric force.
The capability gap was felt during the Balakot airstrike in Pakistan’s territory in 2019 and the ensuing air battles with Pakistan Air Force fighter jets. Pakistan had taken advantage of IAF’s changeover of the ‘eye in the sky’ when launching the attack.
India has been having an ongoing standoff on the eastern border with China, underscoring the need for more AWACS.
The IAF continues to have a yawning gap with its adversary on the Western front, Pakistan, when it comes to AEW&C. India currently has only three platforms – IL-76-based PHALCON AWACS and two DRDO-developed AEW&C Netra aircraft.
Experts estimate that the IAF needs at least ten such aircraft to man its airspace effectively. In 2020, the Cabinet Committee on Security gave a nod to purchase two more AWACS.
The Phalcon AWACS in the IAF were procured under a trilateral agreement between Russia, Israel, and India. The Israeli EL/W-2090 radar is mounted on the Russian IL-76 aircraft.
The IAF wanted to add AWACS to its inventory in 2016 and 2020, but high costs made it opt for the indigenous route. The DRDO-developed Netra was delivered six years later than its original timeline of 2011.
The development of an early warning system has suffered delays since its inception in 1994. The project was shelved following a fatal crash during testing. The IAF then went on to import three AWACS from Israel.
IAF’s ‘Eye in the Sky’
The IAF has been waiting for a long time to have more ‘Eyes in Sky.’ Eight years after the plans for indigenous AEW&C were set in motion, in 2023, the Defense Research Development Organization (DRDO) decided to move from using wide-bodied Airbus A330 aircraft to using a narrow-body A321 aircraft as the platform for its flying radar.
DRDO, the research and development organization of the Indian Ministry of Defense, has acquired six Airbus A321s from Air India.
The A320 series are smaller single-aisle commercial jetliners and do not have a military derivative, unlike the A330, which is a larger twin-aisle commercial jetliner that is also available in military variants such as the A330 MRTT mid-air refueller.
DRDO will convert three of them into Netra (Eyes) MkII AEW&C jets. These will be improved versions of the home-grown AEW&C system fitted on Embraer ERJ 145 platforms that India procured from Brazil. Two aircraft will be modified for the SIGINT/COMINT role. One aircraft is named ‘Anusandhan’ (Experiment) by the DRDO and will be used for testing technologies and sensors.
The aircraft will be fitted with radars and sensors by the DRDO. Before that, the aircraft will be sent to France for refurbishment as per the IAF and the DRDO specifications. The whole project is expected to cost around Rs. 1.4 billion.
DRDO has been claiming that it will be an improvement on India’s existing Il-76-based system. The new system will have better endurance.
“The majority of Netra’s systems, including the 240-degree AESA radar, were to be reused as part of a hybrid airborne early warning system. Integration of these systems with additional Air India A320-family planes would require less time. It will also be able to overcome the shortcomings of its earlier platforms – limited range and endurance,” an official familiar with the project told the EurAsian Times.
- Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for over a decade, writing on defense, foreign affairs, and nuclear technology.
- She can be reached at ritu.sharma (at) mail.com
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