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India funds P-8I top-up buy and AWACS acquisition

The purchase of additional Boeing P-8I maritime patrol aircraft for the Indian navy has received government approval – but only six aircraft are now planned to be acquired, instead of the 10 originally planned.

New Delhi has also revived its moribund Airborne Warning and Control System India (AWACS India) programme, which seeks to deliver an indigenous replacement for the Ilyushin Il-76-based A-50Is now in use.

A fleet of eight P-8Is are currently operational with the navy. These were acquired under a $2.14 billion Foreign Military Sales (FMS) contract signed in January 2009. Options for four more were taken in July 2016, in a deal worth approximately $1 billion, with deliveries due between July 2020 and December 2021.

In a report placed before parliament in August 2018, the Indian national audit agency said: “The critical role equipment offered by Boeing were not fully meeting the needs of the Indian navy. Owing to capability limitations of radars installed, the aircraft is not able to achieve the envisaged coverage area requirements.”

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The report also stated that the P-8I’s anti-submarine warfare capability could only be partially fulfilled, as a contract for required weapons had not been concluded as of September 2017.

India’s navy also currently operates upgraded Il-38SD maritime surveillance aircraft, which were first inducted in 1977. The five-strong fleet is slated for retirement from 2025.

Meanwhile, the revived AWACS India programme will use indigenously designed and developed mission systems, and subsystems provided and integrated by the nation’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO).

The AWACS India programme got under way in February 2013 with approval from the Cabinet Committee on Security. This was followed by a March 2014 tender for procurement of six aircraft – an initial batch of two, plus options for four more.

Starting with the Aero India air show in 2015 and at successive events in 2017 and 2019, a scale model of an Airbus A330 with a rotodome was displayed by the DRDO, indicating its preference for the European airframer.

The AWACS India effort has its roots in the DRDO-led Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) system programme, which was conceived in 2002. Government approval was given in 2004 at a project cost of approximately $350 million, with project completion targeted for 2011.

However, the first ‘Netra’ AEW&C platform – based on Embraer’s EMB-145 – was only delivered to the air force in an initial operational clearance configuration in February 2017, followed by a second in September 2019.

Due to “non-achievement of certain operational requirements specified by IAF [the Indian air force], there was time overrun of 70%”, an audit agency report stated last year, adding that the “selection of Embraer as [its] platform created design constraints and caused delay”.

Separately, New Delhi has also approved the procurement of a new twin engine heavy helicopter fleet for the Indian Coast Guard.

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