Airborne Early Warning (AEW) aircraft can do much more than their acronym suggests. The increasing ability of these platforms to perform land and sea surveillance is making them ever more attractive to potential customers in the Asia-Pacific.
Several nations in the Asia-Pacific have ramped up their Airborne Early Warning systems over the past deacde. Once nations in the region tended to rely on the Northrop Grumman E-2 Hawkeye AEW family, but now Japan, the Republic of China and the Republic of Korea are looking at something with a bit more oomph. The E-2 family tends to be fine for local needs, but for more strategic AEW you want something bigger, and what better way to do that than have use business jet or airliner with lots of engine power directing its sensors across the noisy neighbour’s territory?
The US has made more AEW technology available to its allies in the region via the US government’s Foreign Military Sales (FMS) programme. While those nations that the US might not want to sell to or customers not keen to acquire equipment covered by the US’ International Traffic in Arms Regulations , which restricts the export of some US military technologies, look to Israel, Russia, the People’s Republic of China or Sweden, whom are also trying to elbow their way further into the regions’ AEW market.
AEW aircraft are force multipliers, providing various tactical options: Monitoring the movements of your rival’s aircraft, ships or vehicles is one. Performing command and control through the direction for fighters, ships and ground formations, as well as supporting aircraft such as tankers and intelligence-gathering platforms is another. Alternatively, they can carry out surveillance over ground or sea targets, distinguishing between friendly and hostile forces to reduce the chances of blue-on-blue incidents: In a nutshell, AEW platforms can gather information, analyse it and distribute it to other air and surface assets. For example, during Operation ELLAMY, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO)-led intervention to protect Libyan civilians during the Libyan civil war in 2011, the Royal Air Force used its Bomardier/Raytheon Sentinel-R1 Airborne Stand-Off Radar (ASTOR) in this role, using the aircraft’s SARS-2 X-band (8.5-10.68 gigahertz/GHz) synthetic aperture radar to distinguish between the two opposing forces whom were not in uniform and driving similar civilian vehicles. The jet’s radar operates at high altitude to provide high resolution imagery and is believed to have a range of between 86.4 nautical miles/nm (160 kilometres/km) and 162nm (300km) depending on the open sources. The use of the NATO-standard Multifunction Information Distribution System/Joint Tactical Information Distribution System Ultra High Frequency (30 megahertz/MHz to 300MHz) allows the transfer of the aircraft’s radar picture to other users on the ground and in the air in near real time; although not an AEW aircraft in the purest sense of the word as it is not designed to direct and manage air operations, the a concept of operations used by the Sentinel-R1 is used by most AEW aircraft.
Looking towards South Asia, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) is looking to boost its four-strong Saab-2000 turboprop transport fleet equipped with that country’s Erieye S-band (2.3-2.5/2.7-3.7GHz) AEW radar, and its four Shaanxi ZDK-03 Karakorum AEW aircraft. Of the Saab-200 Erieye aircraft, “One will be delivered in (this year) and two in more in 2018,” Air Chief Marshal Sohail Aman, the PAF’s chief of the air staff, told the author in late April. Purchasing AEW aircraft from two separate sources is indicative of Pakistan’s strategy of not becoming too reliant on any one ally. During the November 2016 Zhuhai Air Show, China Electronics Technology Corporation displayed two AEW variants of the Y-9 turboprop transport, upon which the ZDK-03 is based. They included the KJ-500 (also known as the ZDK-06) with a dome antenna along with two models of known as the K/JE-03 design (a variant of the ZDK-03, with a balanced beam radar rather than a dome-mounted system. During the exhibition, a video showed the capability improvements in the newer ZDK-06 which allows the aircraft to use Tactical Data Links (TDLs) to connect aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles, warships and ground installations, a capability already in widespread use on Western-developed AEW platforms. The PRC has a fleet of AEW aircraft, which is thought to comprise circa 19 Ilyushin KJ-2000s and seven Shaanxi KJ-200s but now the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) is believed to be operating several of the improved KJ-500 platforms. These aircraft will be very useful as the PRC expands its so-called nine-dash line further south in the South China Sea where it is involved in a number of competing maritime and territorial claims with the Republic of China, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.
The PLAAF’s KJ-2000 is based closely upon the Ilyushin Il-76 turbofan freighter family, as is the Beriev A-50Ehl operated by the Indian Air Force (IAF). These aircraft are operated by the IAF’s 50 Squardon at Agra airbase in northern India. The unit is set to receive another two aircraft ordered in March 2016. Under a $1.1 billion deal all three original Il-76 airframes were modified with Israel Aerospace Industries’ (IAI) EL/W-2090 Phalcon AEW L-band (1.215-1.4GHz) radar. The radar is regarded as one of the most advanced systems in the world. According to sources familiar with the radar’s capabilities, a track initiation takes just four seconds, at least five times faster than an equivalent rotating dome AEW radar system. The IAF also acquired three Embraer ERJ-145 turbofan transports in a $208 million deal that is seeing them outfitted with an indigenous Defence Research and Development Organisation system known as the Netra. The first was handed over to the IAF on 14th February. The Netra radar can perform 240 degree coverage with a 208.5m (386.2km) instrumented range. It would seem that the IAF’s current fleet of five A-50s and three EMB-145s will not be enough to cover India’s vast borders; measuring over 11879nm (22000km). Up to six Airbus A-330 family turbofan transports which could be configured with the Netra radar are now on the IAF’s wish-list, S. Christopher, the DRDO’s chairperson, told reporters at this February’s Aero India exhibition held in Bengaluru in the west of the country. He added that the deal was now before the Indian government’s Cabinet Committee on Security and he was hopeful that within six months he would get the clearances to acquire these aircraft. Mr. Christopher suggested the first aircraft will be handed over to the IAF in less than seven years after signing the contract. He added that, when mounted on the A330, the Netra radar would have 360 degree surveillance over a 162nm (300km) instrumented range.
Looking towards southeast Asia, Thailand is operating two Saab 340 Erieye AEW aircraft, based with the Royal Thai Air Force’s 7 Wing in the south of the country, close to the border with Malaysia. With continued guerrilla violence in the southern reaches of Thailand, the two aircraft are used to monitor the ground situation. They are also watching over movements from the sea into the conflict zone. As you head further into the Pacific, the majority of air forces are flying US-built aircraft to fulfil the AEW role, which is not surprising given that many are amongst Uncle Sam’s closest allies. For example, the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) operates six Boeing E-7A Wedgetail AEW aircraft equipped with Northrop Grumman’s S-band Multirole Electronically Scanned Array (MESA) radar which the RAAF claims is some of the most technology it operates. The MESA radar provides 360 degree coverage at ranges in excess of 149.4nm (276.7km) for aerial targets and 113nm (209.2km) for patrol boat-sized surface contacts. Distances can be significantly increased if the radar’s power is focused in a particular direction, rather than applied in a general sweep. Based with 2 Squadron at Williamtown airbase in New South Wales, One example is regularly deployed to the Middle East for Operation OKRA, Australia’s military commitment to the US-led Operation INHERENT RESOLVE aimed against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. With 13 personnel on board, the E-7As provide command and control to fighters and tankers, act as a communications relay from airborne assets to personnel on the ground and relay target details to the fighters. The Republic of Korea Air force also acquired four Boeing B-737-700ER turbofan transport-based platforms equipped with the MESA radar in a $1.6 billion deal back in 2006 and are now set to order two more.
Other Boeing AEW users in the region include Japan which operates four Boeing E-767, the only country to have purchased the firm’s B-767-200ER turbofan transport as an AEW aircraft. Four E-2Cs augment them, but their time is coming to an end as plans to acquire four more modern E-2D Hawkeyes equipped with Lockheed Martin AN/APY-9 Ultra High Frequency (420MHz-450MHz/890MHz-942MHz) radars at a total cost of $1.7 billion are now underway. A $151.3 million order for the first aircraft was contracted on 12th November 2015, and a second deal worth $163 million for a second E-2D followed in August 2016. Japan is joined by the Republic of China Air Force which operates six E-2Ks.
One of the most interesting acquisitions in the region was the $1 billion purchase by the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) for four Gulfstream G550 business jets outfitted with IAI’s EL/W-2085 Conformal Airborne Early Warning L-band/S-band radars. The aircraft has the narrower field of view S-band antennae on the fore and aft of the aircraft, with the wider-angle L-band antennae mounted on the sides of the aircraft’s fuselage Deliveries took place between 2009 and 2010 and the aircraft were declared fully operational on 13th April 2012 with the RSAF’s 111 Squadron. The EL/W-2085 has revolutionised the way the RSAF carries out its AEW role after 23 years of using the E-2C. Typically, the RSAF remain tight-lipped about the programme, although ST Aero are believed to provide maintenance support for the jets. Although the US appear to have stitched up most of the market in southeast Asia, both Saab and IAI are pushing hard to make some headway.
Having gained a foothold in Pakistan and Thailand, Saab is now trying to move further into the Asia-Pacific’s AEW market with its new GlobalEye offering. Malaysia and Indonesia are known to both have urgent AEW requirements which Saab is hoping to tap into with this new platform, launched in Singapore during February 2016. Having won a $1.5 billion contract for three GlobalEyes from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where it is known as the Swing Role Surveillance System (SRSS), Saab is keen to build on the aircraft’s success. The GlobalEye combines the new Erieye-ER (extra range) Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar with Bombardier’s Global-6000 business jet. At the Singapore launch, Erik Winberg, Saab’s director of business, said that the GlobalEye has “a swing-role capability that can work in the air, land and maritime domain. We can do any sort of surveillance in these three domains.” According to Saab the new aircraft has an endurance of circa eleven hours and can automatically detect and track air and surface targets over a huge area. Ground surveillance of moving vehicles can be conducted through long-range, wide-area ground moving target indication radar modes.
IAI Elta is also trying to make more headway in the market and continues to market the Gulfstream G550 equipped with the EL/W-2085. The most recent customer is the Aeronautica Militaire (Italian Air Force) which acquired two in a $750 million deal that also included the Israeli Air Force buying 30 Alenia Aermacchi/Leonardo M-346 Master lead-in jet trainers for around $1 billion. The first G550 was handed over to the Italian Air Force last December, and the second will arrive some time later this year. Avishay Izhakian, deputy general manager for marketing and business development at IAI’s Elta subsidiary told the author in late-2016 that the platform “is a fourth generation CAEW, the main difference is the advanced radar technology which makes it more powerful (than other, similar platforms), you get better or same performance with lesser resources. Weight is a big factor in the AEW world and the aircraft fulfils several missions, not just tracking airborne targets but on the ground and at sea. We have developed the aircraft for the threats of the future, not just today” In 2010, IAI and Airbus’ defence and space subsidiary started developing an AEW version of the latter’s C-295 family turboprop freighter equipped with IAI’s EL/W-2095 radar, which is believed to be an upgraded version of the EL/W-2090 radar (see above). There have been no sales so far but both IAI and Airbus continue to promote the aircraft: “The C295 is very popular and some of the customers want to leverage its infrastructure for several other missions including AEW to make it a more cost effective solution” Mr. Izhakian argued.
Over the next decade other nations beyond those discussed above may well join the Asia-Pacific AEW club. This could include nations such as Malaysia and Indonesia, as mentioned above, or possibly Vietnam: The range of surveillance capabilities performed by such aircraft are increasingly making them no longer a luxury, but a necessity.
by Alan Warnes