1 March 2020
23:40 Hours IST, Palam Airport, India
The gray Embraer ERJ-145 aircraft had landed at Palam in the increasingly cold and foggy night. Some new crew got in and a few got out quickly as a refueling truck filled up the tanks and air force technicians did the customary checks..
Within an hour of landing, the plane was up once again on a northern bearing. Some aviation enthusiasts noticed the flight with interest on their tracking softwares and aviation websites. Flights of Indian Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) were a semi-regular thing and only the hardcore defence enthusiasts among the aviation trackers paid much attention to it. But only a handful of people knew about the changes done to this particular aircraft in last few days.
A small team of scientists from Electronics and Radar Development Establishment (LRDE) had worked tirelessly to replace and flight test some of the Electronic Warfare (EW) systems of the aircraft with some new ones which were still under prototype stage. As soon as the basic testing was completed, the new equipment was fitted on one ERJ-145 in possession of Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO).
Primary use of such aircraft is as an airborne radar which has an extended range uncluttered by ground reflections and limited line of sight which limit ground based radars. Depending upon their capabilities, a handful of such aircraft can monitor aircraft movement over a large area which’d take dozens of ground based radars. Mounting radars on planes also makes them a harder target for the enemy compared to mostly static land based ones. In addition to tracking airplanes and missiles, these planes can be used for managing military resources, electronic warfare like radar jamming and electronic signals intelligence.
Attempts to build a indigenous airborne radar and warfare platform in India had started with a project called Airborne Surveillance Platform, code named ‘Airawat’ in early 1980s. India had tried to shop around for this technology after learning lessons about the changing face of air warfare in 1971 war. After unsuccessfully trying to buy the technology or suitable systems from abroad, it was decided to develop the technology inhouse.
A Hawker Siddeley HS-748 license built by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited was chosen as the platform to carry the radar. A number of advanced technologies like the airborne radar, secure datalinks, power generation systems and a few others were developed from the ground up. The program showed a lot of promise but suffered a setback when the sole flying prototype was destroyed in a crash during a test flight in January 1999 killing eight people on board. In any other country, the setback would be acknowledged, cause of crash analysed and work resuming on the project as soon as possible.
But Indian attitude to local weapons procurement meant that the project and most of the advanced technologies developed from scratch at huge cost were put in cold storage. By this time, foreign countries had started to show willingness to sell their own systems. In 2004,, India paid Israel around USD 1.05 billion to purchase their Phalcon radar system which used Active Phased Array Electronic Scanning Technology mounted on Russian Il-76 planes. It’s interesting that this system was meant for sale to China, but USA got Israel to cancel the deal forcing Israelis to sell it to India.
IAF calls ERJ-145 platform based radars as Airborne Early Warning and Control System while the bigger Il-76 based radar system is called Airborne Warning And Control System. Both have mostly similar functions, but bigger size of latter enables larger crew size and it can serve as a better mobile command post.
Surprisingly, Indian project was restarted again in 2004 with a very different set of design goals. Jet powered Embraer ERJ-145 was chosen as the platform in place of prop-engined HS-748 which had been out of production for quite some time. Instead of Mechanically Scanning Antenna housed in a Rotating Radome which looks like a fluffy ‘chapati’, the new radar mounted on ERJ-145 was chosen to be a static Active Electronically Scanning Antenna which had a few better characteristics than the older radar but only 240 degrees of coverage unlike a full 360 degree coverage of older design.
With these two major changes a lot of the older technologies had to be abandoned and redeveloped leading to more wastage of resources. It took a long time to bring the aircraft upto ever shifting standards of Indian Air Force and the new system named NETRA (Eye in Hindi) was finally awarded Initial Operations Clearance (IOC) in February 2017. After hundreds of crores spent on customisations and development, and requirements of IAF, one would have thought that atleast 10-12 of the platforms would have been inducted to make all the investment worthwhile. But only 2 of the systems were built before Embrarer was blacklisted over corruption charges.
No company can hope to sell weapons in India without bribing politicians, bureaucrats and military personnel involved in the purchase process. Yet only the companies are punished while the people who enforce corrupt practices in India go scot free.The people involved in setting up requirements also come up with insanely preposterous ideas such as Indian Army asking for guns which can fire bullets of two different calibers, carbine with two triggers and IAF asking for an AWACS system which can also function as an aerial refueler. Most such tactics are meant to delay or cripple development of local systems to favour foreign imports. It’s not that Indian defence laboratories and production facilities are perfect or even competent as evident from workings of Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) enterprises . Mostly Indian defence procurement is nothing more than a huge circus of semi-legalised corruption and incompetence which gets rewarded. Only people who suffer are honest tax payers and military personnel who actually put their lives on the line almost daily.
The embargo resulted in production of only 2 AEW&C aircraft while the requirement was for much more. In normal operational conditions, military aircraft usually have serviceability rate which is never 100%. This means that in a fleet of 10 aircraft with serviceability rate of 70%, only 7 can be in flightworthy condition, while the rest are grounded for repairs at any time. How many Netras could be used in wartime is anybody’s guess. So while any other country the size of India would have inducted such a system by dozens, India had only two and the scientists had just one spare aircraft to work with for improvements and upgrades.
The third aircraft in possession of DRDO had only a few systems common with Netras in IAF service and no IAF personnel had been fully trained in their operation. So three scientists from DRDO were assigned to the mission to help train the IAF personnel while on live missions. They had flown in the plane dozens of times during the development trials, but none of them ever expected to fly in to a live mission just like that.
The aircraft codenamed Lochan took a leisurely turn as it gained altitude to reach 4000 meters and started cruising towards Indian border with China Occupied Tibet in Laddakh and northern Lahaul Spiti sector. Normally most invading aircrafts will fly at as low altitude as possible to avoid being detected by enemy radar. As mentioned earlier, ground based radars have a limited line of sight and a minimum and maximum detection altitude. By flying low, invading aircraft can escape detection by radar waves emitted by the antenna. Flying close to the ground also enables them to use terrain features of earth such as mountains as cover.
Since flying so close to the ground is dangerous, most aircrafts use a Terrain Following Radar to make the task of pilot easier. In many such aircrafts, waypoints (coordinates in the path followed) can be programmed in and altitude adjusted automatically at different places according to requirements. Lochan had no such radar, but the two Jaguars which joined it over east of Dhualdhar mountain range did. Neither of the aircraft had their radars switched on and they were too far off to be detected visually. But pilots in all the aircraft knew the exact position and bearings of each other via the secure datalinks which connected them to each other and multiple ground control stations via satellite links.
There are two types of modes of radar operation, Active and Passive. Active mode is when the radar is transmitting a radar pulse and looking for reflections from targets to collect data like distance, velocity, altitude and bearing. Passive mode on the other hand involves collecting radar emissions falling on their sensor and gathering information about targets emitting them. Passive radars can use emissions from a third source like TV, microwave or radio broadcast signals to gather information about a target of interest, This is better for stealth than active mode as no signal is emitted by the radar. But this has limited use as if the other radar is in passive mode too, then it’s much harder to know about the existence of the other. Active radar mode has no such limitations, but it’s bad for stealth as it alerts everyone to it’s presence as soon as it’s switched on. One can think of Active mode as a person searching for another person in the dark using a torch and Passive mode as searching for other people without turning on own. Sonar in ships and submarines follow the same principle. Only major difference is that Sonar uses sound waves instead of electromagnetic waves of radars.
As it neared the border, Lochan increased it’s altitude to 5000 meters to get a better look at Tibetan territory under Chinese occupation across the Himalayan mountain ranges. It took a sharp turn and started flying in a loop over the skies staying a few km inside India. Once Lochan was in position, the Jaguars given code names Sparrow 1 and Sparrow 2 dived close to the ground and started flying towards the border. Lochan had a limited number of contacts in Chinese territory as it was flying at 4000 m, but as soon as it went over 5000 m and mountains blocking it’s line of sight went below, the consoles lit up with multiple contacts.
On a normal day, an AEW&C would’ve put it’s radar in active mode and started tracking the area around it by sending it’s own radar emissions. Then there’d have been dozens of contacts on the screen instead of just a handful. The flight computer analysed the signals and marked them automatically. There were a quite a few active radars in the Chinese side including some for civilian use such as weather, civilian airports and a smaller number of military radars. One mobile radar source was detected around 250 kms away in roughly the same bearing as them, which the computer identified as Chinese built KJ-200.
This is the closest Chinese equivalent to Netra with a few key differences. The type of radar is similar but the platform is slower and larger 4 engined Shaanxi Y-8 turbo-prop built in China and based on Russian AN-12. KJ-200 too had suffered a lethal crash during development which had killed 40 people, but unlike Indians, they had persevered and instead of abandoning the project inducted 10 of them in a short period of time.
At this distance it was not likely that KH-200 radar could have detected any of the Indian aircraft as the radar returns would be too weak and scattered for the antenna to collect and it’s computer to process. But it could change any minute if and when any of the aircraft got too close. In addition, there were a number of ground based radars which could detect Indian planes once they got high enough. This happened just a few moments later when there was another active radar contact on the consoles.
One of the contact was identified as a Type 305B search radar employed by Chinese HQ-9 Surface To Air Missile (SAM) batteries. HQ9 is a copy of lethal S-300 SAM system of Russia which also has a limited anti-ballistic missile capability. Both India and China have S-300 and were inducting S-400 (in 2020), it’s advanced version. So Indians had a good understanding about S-300 systems worked. Since Chinese had copied a very similar S-300 system with only a few modifications, Indians knew most characteristics of it’s radars and missiles. Lochan’s mission today was to test the newest technology developed by Electronics and Radar Development Establishment (LRDE) against the Chinese copy of S-300, HQ-9.
A SAM system generally uses more than one radar to track incoming aircrafts and missiles. The primary is called a Tracking Radar which keeps on scanning a certain area assigned to it for any possible targets. Once it finds a target of interest, the data is passed on to another radar called Fire Control Radar (FCR) or Illuminating Radar (IR). It’s job is to gather data such as range, bearing and azimuth of the target. This data is utilised by the control center which allots a best firing solution with data like best firing angle, time etc to the missile or gun used to attack the intruder.
In certain types of systems, the missile is guided up to the target by the same radar. In a few other’s the radio frequency or heat based seeker within the missile take over after launch which then guides itself to the target. Additionally, there are certain radars which combine all these functions in just one radar system instead of fielding so many. This is just a simplistic explanation and there are many variations even within same families of SAM systems
The civilian technician felt his heart skip a bit as a chirp announced that the plane was being tacked by the HQ-9 SAM’s long range search radar and then another just a few seconds later which was identified as KJ-200, nearest competitor to Indian Phalcon AWACS. It was still a few minutes away from being detected by it, but once it range, it could accurately provide intercept instructions to fighter jets or surface based anti-aircraft assets. The smaller KJ-200 had probably landed already or switched off it’s radars as it’s signals hadn’t been noticed for some time. Lochan kept flying in straight bearing for a while then dived below the tracking cone of Type 305B to break the track. Symbols of most ground based radars on the Tibetan plateau went dark soon but that of KJ-2000 stayed. Lochan gained altitude again not too far and turned to repeat the pattern. Again there were multiple radar chirps and their old symbols lit up again. The plane’s crew was hoping for a bit more activity to incite Chinese to turn up as many radars and other assets in order to collect as much data like location, radar signatures, ranges etc as possible.
As the plane moved in a north western bearing along the border, it detected a few more radar emissions from two other military radars but the contacts vanished soon as the plane probably got out of their line of sight or a mountain peak at some distance blocked the view.
All of these radar positions were marked and transmitted to Jaguars and ground control. A few possible approach vectors were calculated and the one with most chance of success chosen and provided to the pilots. A few minutes later, the Jaguars popped up in line of sight of HQ9 radars and started following the waypoints provided to them. There were audio and visual alerts in Jaguar cockpits as the 305B tracking radar immediately picked them up.
On a normal mission, Jaguars would’ve masked their approach behind mountains and flown as close the ground as possible before reaching a suitable altitude to drop their ordinance on the target. But on this mission, they were just carrying fuel tanks and prototypes of an advanced Electronic Warfare pod. Few seconds after getting in the range of 305B, the Jaguars started flying in an 8 shaped pattern with a portion of it inside Chinese border. Crew in both flights noticed multiple radar contacts coming online as the Chinese got alert of a possible incursion in their air space.
Of around a dozen plus active radar contacts, Indians were interested in HT-233 Fire Control Radar of the HQ9 battery which turned on fairly late compared to the rest. Unlike what many people think, not all the radars are turned on all the time. It’s done to save power, extend usable life and reduce possibility of tracking and analysis of signals by the enemy. The positions and time between detection and turning on was recorded and the next phase of mission started. Sparrow 1 turned on it’s yet unnamed EW pod and Sparrow 2 turned away in the opposite direction flying a flight path roughly parallel to Lochan but just inside Indian territory. They didn’t want to provoke Chinese in to shooting them down by deep incursions just yet.
At this time, Lochan crew noticed the KJ-200 heading in their direction. They knew that it’ll have an escort of minimum two fighter jets armed with long range surface to air missiles which couldn’t be detected till they turned on their own radars. Mission Controller in Lochan pored through the data being displayed on his screen and allowed himself a wry smile. They had collected all the data they had come for and it was time to go home.
The new EW pod deployed on Jaguars and it’s bigger version on Lochan had done their jobs as well as expected. They had managed to spoof multiple powerful Chinese radars in to thinking that Indian planes were 10s of km away from their actual positions. LRDE had managed to pack it all in a small pod 3 m long and 0.5 m in diameter deployable on a fighter jet. This Range Deception Jamming technology could come in handy in case Chinese ground based Air Defence (AD) network had to be beaten.