Airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft are force multipliers of the highest degree. A number of Asia-Pacific air forces are introducing new AEW&C platforms while others such as Malaysia aspire to owning them.
6th Jun 2013
TAKING CONTROL – ASIA-PACIFIC AEW&C AIRCRAFT PROGRAMMES
Byline: Gordon Arthur / Hong Kong
Airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft are force multipliers of the highest degree. A number of Asia-Pacific air forces are introducing new AEW&C platforms while others such as Malaysia aspire to owning them. Flying at high altitudes, an aircraft’s radar enjoys a bird’s eye view plus the attendant advantage of mobility. Indeed, the radar on an aircraft flying at 9,000m can typically detect, track and identify aircraft, and even seagoing vessels, within a 312,000km² area. AEW&C assets offer commanders unparalleled airspace situational awareness. The ‘C’ in AEW&C is vital as operators can command a battlespace in both offensive and defensive operations. They also shorten the kill chain because this responsive command-and-control (C2) node is in close proximity to the battle. It is hugely flexible too as it can be used for disaster relief, search and rescue, or even to augment air traffic control thanks to sophisticated on-board communication and radar suites.
Previously, AEW&C aircraft were the domain of only the world’s wealthiest air forces (e.g. the E-3 Sentry of the US Air Force [USAF]), but they are now proliferating due to several factors. The traditional mechanically scanned radar is being overtaken by active electronically scanned array (AESA) technology that results in lighter and more compact radars that can fit in smaller airframes. These advances have put AEW&C platforms within the reach of less well-off nations as they are cheaper to buy and to operate long-term. For example, Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) says its current Phalcon AESA is 2.5 times lighter, can process data 200 times faster and process signals 3,000 times faster than a comparable system from 1995. Rivalries between Asian nations are likely to spur spending on AEW&C assets too, as is already occurring on the Subcontinent.
On a recent trip to South Korea, the author passed through Gimhae International Airport in Pusan. Evident at the dual military-civilian airport were Boeing 737 “Peace Eye” aircraft. So the Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) is going to be our starting point in this roundup of Asia-Pacific regional AEW&C assets. South Korea ordered four 737s in a US $1.59 billion contract after Boeing was declared the winner on 7 November 2006. As South Korea looks towards taking up full wartime operational control of all forces on the Korean Peninsula in 2015 it is important for the country to augment its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities.
Boeing delivered the first 737 AEW&C to South Korea in February 2010, with Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) performing final modifications. It entered ROKAF service in September 2011. The next three aircraft had their Northrop Grumman L-band Multirole Electronically Scanned Array (MESA) radars integrated in-country by KAI at its Sacheon facility. The second platform was delivered in December 2011 and the remaining two, last year (May and October) ahead of schedule. The “Peace Eye” has ten mission crew consoles, and can simultaneously track aerial and maritime targets.
The Japan Air Self-Defence Force (JASDF) operates four Boeing E-767 AEW&C aircraft, the only air force in the world to own this type. Boeing 767-200ER platforms were chosen because Boeing 707 production had ceased but the radar and systems are essentially those of late-model E-3s. Their fit-out includes: Joint Tactical Information Distribution System (JTIDS/Link 16), IBM CC-2E central computer, and Northrop Grumman AN/APY-2 radar system offering a 360º view and 320km range. The E-767s entered service in 2000. In November 2006 Boeing won a Foreign Military Sales (FMS) contract to deliver Radar System Improvement Program (RSIP) kits to all four aircraft. In December 2010, Boeing won a subsequent contract to install and test the RSIP and a mission navigation system upgrade. This work was completed in December 2012. The RSIP provided rewritten software, improved radar sensitivity, and more reliable computer multi-processors that allow the E-767 to detect and track cruise missile-sized targets. The E-767s fly with the 601st Squadron of the AEW Group (AEWG) based at Hamamatsu in central Japan.
Japan also possesses 13 E-2C Hawkeye aircraft within its AEWG. These operate from Misawa Air Base in northern Honshu. The Hawkeyes entered service in 1987. To prevent them from becoming too outdated they started undergoing a modernisation programme in 2004 that included fitting of the AN/APS-145 radar and mission computer upgrade common to the Hawkeye 2000.
Whilst on the topic of Japan, we must also mention the USAF E-3 Sentry aircraft based at Kadena Air Base on Okinawa. These platforms with distinctive, dorsal-mounted, 9.14m-diameter rotating radar domes belong to the 961st Airborne Air Control Squadron. Their location obviously indicates their usage for monitoring areas such as North Korea and China. Boeing is upgrading the USAF’s 32 E-3 Sentries to Block 40/45 status and three have already been updated. The USA also has E-2C Hawkeyes from Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron 115 (VAW-115) aboard the carrier USS George Washington home-based at Yokosuka in Japan. The latest variant of the 1960s-era airframe is the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye equipped with a new APY-9 AESA radar, radio suite, mission computer, integrated satellite communications capability and glass cockpit. The E-2D first flew in August 2007 and initial deliveries to the USN commenced in 2010. Full-rate production of up to 75 aircraft was approved in February this year and an initial operational capability (IOC) is expected in 2015.
When the USA blocked the sale of Israeli Phalcon systems to China, the latter was forced to take an indigenous route to acquire its first AEW&C assets. It pursued twin paths, producing the KJ-2000 based on an Il-76MD, and the smaller KJ-200 based on the Shaanxi Y-8. IHS Jane’s reports five KJ-2000s were commissioned although production stalled owing to a lack of donor Il-76 airframes. They use AESA radar developed by the Nanjing Research Institute of Electronic Technology fitted in a non-rotating dome. These KJ-2000 “Mainring” aircraft are flown by the 26th Air Division of the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) in Zhejiang Province near Taiwan. With China obtaining a batch of ten second-hand Il-76MD aircraft from Russia last December, its KJ-2000 fleet may expand although one alternative is to use something like the Comac C919 as a platform. China is expecting another ten Il-76s from Russia as compensation for an earlier unfulfilled contract.
The less-capable KJ-200 helps fill gaps left by the larger KJ-2000’s dependence on unreliable foreign suppliers. The Y-8, a Chinese copy of the An-12, is more easily obtainable although the crash of a test aircraft in June 2006 seriously affected the programme. A KJ-200 was exhibited at the Zhuhai Airshow in both 2010 and 2012. Despite the arrival of AEW&C aircraft within the ranks of the PLAAF, China still has much to learn about utilising them to gain maximum benefit. Their practicality will be stymied by the fact that older fighters do not have digital data-links and air force data-links are incompatible with those of the PLA Navy (PLAN).
The country most threatened by China is Taiwan. The Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF) operates six E-2C Hawkeyes in the 2nd Early Warning Squadron based at Pingtung. Four Hawkeyes were purchased in 1995 while the two newest ones (E-2T 2000E) were delivered in 2004. In 2009, Northrop Grumman was awarded a $154.1 million contract to upgrade the four older E-2T Hawkeyes to the latest 2000 configuration by June 2013. This upgrade provides a JTIDS/Link 16 capability, replacement of the original Lockheed Martin AN/APS-138 radar with the AN/APS-145 that has improved land, sea and over-the-horizon search capability, and Rolls-Royce Allison T56-A-427 turboprop engines that are 15% more efficient. All six ROCAF Hawkeyes now share a common standard known as E-2K.
This region is gaining new AEW&C capabilities. The Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) ordered four Gulfstream G550 aircraft fitted with Elta EL/W-2085 Phalcon radars in 2007. AESA antennae are fitted on the nose and tail, while the most distinguishing feature is slab-sided arrays on the fuselage sides. The radar offers 360º coverage without the drag common to a rotodome. The first G550 Conformal Airborne Early Warning (CAEW) platform arrived in February 2009 and all were delivered to 111 Squadron by 2011. They achieved full operational capability (FOC) in April 2012. Each aircraft has six system operators, and ST Aerospace supplied an extra G550 for training for a 20-year period. The CAEW has a nine-hour endurance at a 12,500m altitude. Despite a dearth of data from Singaporean authorities, its radar performance is likely to be similar to those owned by the Israeli Air Force. Their arrival allowed retirement of four E-2C Hawkeyes.
Further north, Thailand was the second ASEAN country to gain AEW&C aircraft. In 2006, as part of a larger package that included Saab JAS 39 Gripen fighters, Thailand selected the Saab S100B Argus AEW&C aircraft with Erieye Side-Looking Airborne Radar (SLAR). The Erieye offers a 360° detection range of 350km against enemy fighters. The first Saab S100B, based on a Saab 340 airframe, reached the Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF) in December 2010 alongside an accompanying Saab 340 for training purposes. Phase 2 of the RTAF procurement saw Thailand receiving a second Saab AEW&C aircraft in October 2012. These assets are operated by the 702nd Squadron from Surat Thani Air Base.
India faces extant threats from Pakistan on its western border and from China along its mountainous northern border. It has been pouring money into its military and AEW&C assets are among its priorities. On 5 March 2004, India ordered three IAI EL/W-2090 Phalcon conformal array radar systems to be fitted on Ilyushin Il-76 A-50EI aircraft. The first was delivered to the Indian Air Force (IAF) on 25 May 2009. 18 months behind schedule because of Il-76 delivery delays from Russia. All are now operational at their Agra base. The Phalcon radar is believed capable of tracking 60 targets at ranges of up to 800km, and the aircraft has an aerial refuelling capacity. Reports suggest India plans to acquire two more aircraft in the future.
Like China, India is pursuing a dual-track policy. The state-run Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is putting phased array radar atop three Embraer ERJ 145 aircraft ordered from Brazil in June 2008. This mid-tier platform is believed to have a limited 300km radar range with 240º coverage. It is supposed to link up to 40 aircraft. The maiden flight of the first Embraer aircraft occurred in December 2011 and was delivered to the DRDO’s Centre for Airborne Systems (CABS) in August 2012 with mission avionics, flight testing and system integration yet to take place. Next April is an optimistic schedule for it to reach an operational state. Each aircraft has AESA radar, extra internal fuel tanks and five workstations. India views this programme as a starting point for more ambitious and complex future projects such as the AWACS (India) that was approved in February as it seeks a high-low mix of assets.
India will receive its 45,000-tonne INS Vikramaditya carrier at year’s end and, later this decade, two indigenously built Vikrant-class carriers. The second, INS Vishal, will have a steam catapult suitable for heavier aircraft. The Indian Navy (IN) has already expressed interest in AEW&C aircraft to operate from it and Northrop Grumman is marketing its E-2D Advanced Hawkeye as a solution for a probable six-craft requirement.
India’s western-border nemesis also has two AEW&C types. One sourced from Sweden and the other from China. In 2006, Pakistan ordered six Saab 2000 aircraft, of which four were fitted with an off-the-shelf Saab-Ericsson Erieye AEW system. These aircraft operated by No.13 Squadron of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) at Minhas have a nine-hour endurance and contain five operator stations and four command stations. The radar has a 450km range. The first Saab 2000 aircraft was delivered in December 2009 while the other three arrived in 2010. Alarmingly, Minhas in northern Pakistan was targeted by a violent Tehrik-e-Taliban attack last August with one Saab destroyed and two reportedly damaged. The fact that this terrorist group targeted AEW&C assets is perhaps strong testament to the type’s usefulness on the battlefield.
Leery of being too dependent on the USA for equipment, Pakistan turned to China for extra AEW&C types. Pakistan signed up for four Chinese ZDK-03 aircraft in 2008, these being a Pakistan-specific version of the KJ-200. However, it does differ in that the AESA radar is in a rotating radome mounted on a Shaanxi Y-8F-600 platform. The first aircraft had its Chinese rollout ceremony in late 2010 prior to delivery to the PAF in November 2011. The aircraft, dubbed “Karakoram Eagle”, is flown by No.4 Squadron from PAF Base Masroor.
The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) has received all six of its Boeing E-7A “Wedgetail” aircraft, and IOC was declared last November. The type’s FOC is expected in late 2014. Australia originally ordered four aircraft but subsequently exercised an option for two more. Readers wishing a more in-depth analysis of the Wedgetail may refer to Kym Bergmann’s article, ‘Wedgetail – Living up to its Potential’, that appeared in the April 2013 issue of Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter.
Wedgetails of No.2 Squadron began conducting operations in April 2010. During Exercise Pitch Black last August, Wing Commander Murray Jones of No.1 Squadron enthusiastically told the author, “It’s an extension of the Hornet – it extends situational awareness to a higher level.” The E-7A can monitor a 400,000km² area and the aircraft has been garnering favourable feedback from users as well as allies. Bergmann concluded his article with the attribute, “Wedgetail now looks to be a splendid system that will make a major contribution to Australian capabilities for generations to come. No one wants to say this on the record, but it might well be the finest AEW&C system in the world – perhaps not today, but almost certainly by the time FOC is achieved.”
This praise is in sharp contrast to the serious problems that plagued the ambitious AIR 5077 project after the contract was awarded in 1997. In 2008 it was added to the ‘Projects of Concern’ list and, in the end, the Boeing 737-700 aircraft with ‘top hat’ MESA radar were delivered years behind schedule by Boeing and Northrop Grumman. The first Wedgetail was handed over in 2009 and the final example in June 2012. Boeing’s role has now moved from developer/integrator to that of in-country supporter. The company won a five-year performance-based support contract in January 2010 and this role is undertaken at RAAF Base Williamtown. Now that Australia has operationalised this cutting-edge system, it will surely bolster its manufacturers’ marketing efforts as they seek sales regionally and further afield.