Indian Air force (IAF) has decided to procure 6 Commerical aircraft from the State-owned enterprise Air India that is on verge of disinvestment to be converted into an Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft with a rotodome mounted above the aft fuselage, that houses a three-dimensional locally developed AESA radar providing a 360-degree view that can detect targets more than 400 kilometers away.

IAF first choice of aircraft was Airbus A330-200 a commercial aircraft to be used as a base airframe for the AWACS program but due to high purchase cost it has been questioned by the finance ministry several times but here comes another surprise, Air India owned fleet is largely made up of Boeing aircraft, with only 19 A319 and 20 A321 coming from Airbus, but with no A330-200 owned by Air India that was the first choice of the air force.

Air India has a sizeable fleet of A319 and A321 but they are way smaller aircraft usually used to fly the domestic route when compared to the larger and bigger A330-200. just to give a small comparison, A321-200
has a range of 5,000 km and A330-200 has a range of 12,500 km, not making them an ideal candidate for the IAF if it sticks to the A330-200 operational requirements. Air India and its subsidiary Air India express own over 26 Widebody and 17 Narrow-body aircraft that have been manufactured by Boeing that’s rival to Airbus.

In the civilian market, Boeing’s 767 series competes with the A330 series but Air India again doesn’t own them, that makes only two Widebody aircraft type that emerges as a viable candidate to be used as a base airframe for the AWACS program. Air India owns around 15 Boeing 777-300ER out of which 2 inducted in 2018 have now been transferred to IAF that now uses them to ferry Prime Minister and President of India after it got necessary modification for VVIP configuration. 777-300ER is a way bigger aircraft when compared to A330-200 just to give a small comparison, 777-300ER has a range of 14,600 km and has 351,534 kgs MTOW, while A330-200 has a range of 12,500 km and has 233,000 kgs

The second viable candidate seems to be Boeing 787-8. Air India operates 27 of them but only owns 6. A330-200 is way better than 787-8 in terms of MTOW and Engine thrust output but has a lower range due to a much efficient engine on 787-8.

787-8 vs 777-300ER

The 777 series is far older than the 787 and uses construction materials that are heavier while a Boeing 787 is incredibly fuel-efficient when compared to any of the 777 series. 777-300ER has been priced around $375.5 million per aircraft that is far more than $338.4 million or lower that makes 787 cheaper to buy and operate. both 777-300ER and 787-8 were also ordered again in 2006 deal with Boeing, but the oldest 787-8 in service with Air India presently is 9.24 years and the oldest 777-300ER in service with Air India is 13.30 years.

Boeing AWACS Challenges

Boeing does have an Airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) that was derived from the Boeing 707 manufactured in the early ’70s and production of which ended in 1992. Boeing has developed 737 AEW&C that has a fixed, active electronically scanned array radar antenna instead of a rotating one and a 767-200ER based rotodome radar antenna only for Japan but both aircraft are much smaller when compared to both 777-300ER and 787-8 in almost all aspects. Converting 777-300ER or 787-8 into AWACS will require OEM design and input.

Airbus AWACS Challenges

But it could also be a possibility that IAF might go for cheaper AWACS Challenges A220 family to cut cost and due to cheaper availability of the airframes especially new engine option (NEO) jetliner versions that provide fuel improvements of 20%.

DRDO Rotodome Challenges

DRDO already has carried out concept studies on the rotodome radar antenna based on the Airbus A330-200 used as a base airframe. The study rotodome model developed by the DRDO is 10-meter (32feet) with a fixed triangular antenna array for a 360-degree view. A Larger widebody aircraft line will be able to support a 10-meter rotodome but the same can’t be said of the smaller Narrow-body aircraft like the A220 family, which might require a smaller rotodome with a smaller radar to make it lighter and to meet the power requirements of the smaller engines.

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