After initial confusion over which commercial aircraft will be used as a base airframe for India’s next AWACS program, it now has been confirmed that it will be Airbus A321 narrowbody aircraft that was previously owned by Air India, will be now procured by IAF at $1.2 Billion.

All six aircraft in question have completed 12.1 Years of their Average Age in service with Air India and, the newest being is 10.7 Years old. Ministry of Defence (MOD) has called it the AEW&CS Block-2 program that confirms that it will be a continuation of the Netra AEW&CS program but with better aircraft and an improved radar system that’s the same as side-looking slab arrays mounted on top of the fuselage.

Initial speculation hinted that this new radar will be based on the fixed rotodome configuration of three AESA radar transmit/receive (T/R) modules placed in a triangular configuration inside the round radome to allow a beam to be electronically steered and provide 360?degree coverage. Since A330-200 AWACS proposed earlier was supposed to be based on the rotodome configuration, it was assumed that the same will be true for the Airbus A321 airframe based AEW&CS too, but it has now been confirmed, that it won’t be the case, and instead, it will be again based on the side-looking slab arrays as seen earlier in the Netra AEW&CS.

Netra AEW&CS side-looking slab arrays provide 240° coverage, but media reports hints that the new radar even though will have the same side-looking slab arrays arrangement on top of the aircraft but it will be able to provide 360?degree coverage eliminating the blind spot that is found in all side-looking slab arrays configured airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft world over, but the only aircraft that has overcome this issue and can still provide 360?degree coverage is Wedgetail AEW&C design based on a hybrid Boeing 737 airframe.

Northrop-Grumman MESA L-band AESA primary antennas used on Wedgetail AEW&C also have the same side looking slab arrays arrangement but, it also has a Top array (Top Hat) called as “surfboard” antenna that provides coverage over the nose and in tail sectors. Two side arrays provide 130?degree coverage both in left and right and, the top array provides 50?degree coverage both in the forward and aft area. It’s not the best solution to get 360?degree coverage but it is pocket friendly and quite popular among its operators but it is not the most powerful radar on top of an aircraft but it among the best.

Airbus A321 is way superior and a bigger aircraft, when compared to Boeing 737 upon which Wedgetail AEW&C is based. Boeing 737 has not even one advantage over A321 in any operational capabilities or its specifications thus a larger side-looking slab array antenna can be accommodated on A321 to get its blind spots covered with additional array antennas in forward and rear section it will be able to provide 360?degree coverage like seen on the Wedgetail AEW&C.

While DRDO has not officially commented on the AEW&CS Block-2 program nor has confirmed how 360?degree coverage will be provided or even if it is an essential requirement set by the IAF, but it is more or less confirmed that rotodome configuration might be seen in next-generation AWACS, while A321 AEW&CS will be supplementing between Netra AEW&CS and rotodome based AEW&CS for time being till larger platform is available.

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