India could double its order for Israeli-produced Phalcon airborne early-warning and control system equipment, due to growing doubts over the viability of an indigenous programme being conducted by its Defence Research and Development Organisation.

New Delhi ordered three Phalcon systems in 2004 as part of a $1.5 billion deal with Israel Aerospace Industries and Russia's Rosoboronexport arms export agency, with the radars to be fitted on Ilyushin Il-76 transports. The first aircraft is scheduled for delivery in September, and the last should be in service by the end of 2010.

DRDO scientists and engineers have been developing an AEW system for several years, and hope to fit this on to a modified Embraer ERJ-145 regional airliner for service use by 2011, but air force and industry sources are pessimistic.

"The DRDO has not made any significant breakthrough in the development of the radars or other equipment for a surveillance system. Even if they do, there isn't enough time to conduct the technical and flights tests," says one industry source. "India urgently needs the AEW systems, and an additional three Phalcon systems would meet that requirement." A follow-on deal for three more systems could be signed soon, with this projected to be worth around $2 billion.

Uzbekistan's Tashkent Aircraft Production Organisation has been retrofitting the Il-76 airframes to accommodate the radars. The first converted aircraft began flight tests last November, and work is likely to begin on the second shortly, sources say.

India's contract with IAI also includes the provision of electronic intelligence and communications equipment, with early-warning subsystems designed and manufactured by its Elta Systems subsidiary. Work is now being conducted in support of the programme inside a special hangar at IAI's facilities at Ben-Gurion international airport near Tel Aviv.

Israel's defence ministry said last year that India is its largest client for defence equipment, accounting for 50% of all exports. After years of relying on Russia for its military equipment, India began to diversify its sources a few years ago, and recently signed a letter of offer and acceptance with the USA for six Lockheed Martin C-130J tactical transports. Companies from Europe, Russia and the USA are also bidding for multirole combat aircraft and utility helicopter tenders worth almost $15 billion.

India has also shown interest in Northrop Grumman's E-2C Hawkeye to augment its Il-76 AEW&C aircraft and naval Kamov Ka-31 radar picket helicopters.