Cheap scanner: Poor man's AWACS

With Pakistani Air Force acquiring the US supplied L-88 aerostat systems, India is also speeding up the induction of aerostats to its inventory.

India has at present the Israeli made EL/M-2083 aerostat radars. It was first inducted six years ago and 11 more are in the process of acquisition.

Indian armed forces fear that besides fighter planes, its air defences can also be breached by small micro-light aircraft which has been successfully used by the LTTE in Sri Lanka.

However, with the induction of cruise missiles in the neighborhood, the threat perception has changed dramatically and the Indian armed forces need to have better capable radars with greater range.

As Pakistan has acquired the Babur cruise missile from China a few years ago, India needs radar systems which can detect this category of incoming missile.

Babur Cruise missile would prove to be a major challenge to Indian air and ground defence network. More dangerous would be the threat from other Chinese missiles in case of conflict for which the armed forces need to have an effective firewall against such missiles.

The Raytheon has developed an aerostat radar which can help defend against a cruise missile. India has already reached an advanced stage in defence against ballistic missile but if it is aided by a radar which can detect an incoming cruise missile it will be a great boon to nation’s defences.

Increasing demand

Though aerostat radars have been on the horizon since last three decades, India has been very reluctant to induct them in large numbers.

India got the help from Israel which supplied two aerostat radars a few years ago and the Indian armed forces now plan to induct a dozen more.

Besides, the Indian Navy which wants the surface looking aerostat radars, the IAF has also a grandiose plan to deploy them in large numbers, especially on the mountainous borders.

The radar technology is advancing rapidly and the latest trend is to depend more on the aerostat balloons which can also detect many communication signals at a time.

Though the aerostats cannot replace the AWACS in view of its very high mobility in air, the aerostat radars are gaining new importance in the defence of the country’s territory.

No doubt the aerostat radars are considered more vulnerable to air attack in view of their fixed location, its advantage far outweigh the vulnerability and the cost. The aerostats are called the poor man’s radar in the sky with cost varying from USD 5 million to USD 100 million, whereas the AWACS can cost more than a billion USD.

Though Indian DRDO has also taken a significant step in developing an aerostat radar, Indian scientists would have to travel a long distance before they can claim some self sufficiency in advanced aerostat radar systems.

The Israeli aerostat radar that India has acquired has payloads consisting of advanced programmable radar (APR), Electronic Intelligence (ELINT), communication intelligence (COMINT) and VUHF radio telephony equipment and Identification Friend or Foe (IFF). The radar can be integrated with AWACS and ground based surveillance systems.  

The DRDO aerostat, having a detection range of 100 nautical miles and endurance of one month, carries an electro-optic and communication intelligence payloads, designed, developed and integrated by the Aerial Delivery Research and Development Establishment (ADRDE), Agra.

The Indian aerostat is equipped with a thermal camera for use at night and in low visibility conditions. The electronic intelligence payload carried a communication intelligence system for capturing and analyzing a variety of communication.

It would be useful for all the three Services, the paramilitary forces and civilian applications, including disaster management, according to a senior official of DRDO. For the aerostat, the DRDO incorporated several high-end technologies along with big and medium-sized industries in the aerodynamic design of the balloon fabrics, hydraulic winch, electro-optic tether, high and pressure helium cylinder.

Since the indigenous aerostat radar would take at least two to three years for operational deployment, the IAF wants to acquire them from Israel, which are readily available.

Game changer

However, much more capable and very advanced aerostat radar systems are appearing on the horizon. The February 2011 test of the new aerostat radar by the Raytheon at a Utah test facility in US proved very successful.

The Raytheon claims that it’s Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defence Elevated Netted Sensor System (JLENS) will have a game changing capability for the war-fighters which can detect and defend against cruise missile threats.

Raytheon said that the JLENS would be the first aerostat which is a tethered  balloon – platform consisting of long duration, wide area, over the horizon detection and tracking of low altitude cruise missiles and other threats.

The JLENS has a battlefield commander with much better situational awareness and elevated communications, enabling sufficient warning to engage air defence systems and defeat threats.

The aerostat performs wide area surveillance and fire control sensor cuing and is one of the two advanced elevated sensor systems which have already been deployed.

Besides the JLENS, there are other programs also, which can strengthen the air defence network of the country. The Tethered Aerostat Radar System (TARS) is also aerostat based surveillance program.

Since the aerostat is used as a stationary airborne platform, TARS is designed to detect the low altitude aircraft and surface targets at the radar’s maximum range by mitigating curvature of the earth and terrain masking limitations.

This kind of radar, supplied by the Lockheed Martin, can be more useful for the Indian Navy and coast guard which is now engaged in strengthening the surveillance capabilities of the coastal region, which has a maximum detection range of 200 nautical miles.

With new threats emerging not only from ballistic and cruise missiles and aircrafts, the armed forces need to have a close watch on all the intruding objects like  para-shoots and micro-light aircraft which can be laden with heavy explosives and may cause destruction over sensitive places like a nuclear power plant etc.

The emerging threat perception from state and non state actors require a military response, as only the armed forces can have sufficient warning system to enable its defensive units to prevent the intrusion from the sky.

The 7000 km coast line and almost 14,000 km long international border with various countries require constant monitoring, which indeed is a huge challenge but in changing security scenario, the security establishment must have in position all the relevant intrusion detection system in place to effectively counter any intruding object.

The aerostat radars can substantially contribute in these surveillance roles, for which the armed forces need to plan accordingly.