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The AEW&CS MK-II program, aimed at developing six new Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) aircraft for the Indian Air Force (IAF), is set to embark on sensor trials on the DRDO’s A-319 “Anusandhan” Flight Test Bed (FTB) aircraft next year. The project is expected to gain further momentum in 2025, with the anticipation of the first aircraft taking to the skies by 2026. Leveraging the A-319s and A-321 variants sourced from the Air India fleet, the program marks a significant stride in enhancing India’s aerial surveillance capabilities.

The initial phase of the AEW&CS MK-II program will focus on conducting sensor trials on the DRDO’s A-319 “Anusandhan” FTB aircraft, serving as a testbed for advanced systems. Following successful trials, the DRDO will issue a Request for Proposal (RFP) to seek bids for the modification of the six-passenger aircraft acquired for the program. Airbus, the original equipment manufacturer (OEM), is currently the frontrunner to secure the contract, given its expertise in aircraft modification and integration.

Out of the allocated Rs 11,000 crore budget for the AEW&CS MK-II program, a significant share will be dedicated to the modification and installation of state-of-the-art sensor systems. The program represents a significant advancement of the country’s existing ‘Netra’ AEW&C aircraft, aiming to equip the new AEW&CS MK-II with larger and more sophisticated radar and sensor suites, including the forward-looking Uttam AESA Radar, enhancing coverage and detection capabilities.

Currently, the IAF operates three Israeli Phalcon AWACS on Ilyushin-76 transport aircraft and three indigenous ‘Netra’ AEW&C aircraft on Embraer platforms. The addition of six A-321-based AEW&CS MK-II aircraft, with the possibility of three more of the same type, will augment India’s aerial surveillance fleet significantly.

Notably, the decision to pursue the A-321-based AEW&CS MK-II was made after the IAF and DRDO abandoned plans to develop an A-330-based 360-degree coverage rotodome AWACS. The primary reason for this shift was the high unit cost of the A-330-based system, which was projected to exceed Rs 4,500 crores per unit cost, making it nearly twice as expensive as the A-321-based AEW&CS MK-II.

The AEW&CS MK-II program represents a crucial step in fortifying India’s Air Force capabilities, providing advanced early warning and control systems to enhance situational awareness and response capabilities. As India’s defence sector continues to push boundaries and innovate, collaborations with reputed OEMs like Airbus will further strengthen the country’s indigenous defence manufacturing capabilities.

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