Flying LTTE Tigers, LET Terrorist Boats Help Spur Indian Aerostat Buys from Israel
As countries recognize the need to watch their borders, and especially their coasts, they’re running up against the reality of high operating costs for aerial surveillance. They’re also turning to a logical way around that problem: aerostats. These tethered airships offer very low operating costs and near-constant deployment, carrying optical and radar surveillance gear to altitudes that give them wide-area coverage. Israel has joined the USA as a leading developer of these systems, and a leading exporter as well. One of its customers is India.
In 2007, the Tamil Tigers’ (LTTE), which was responsible for assassinating Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, attacked Sri Lankan military bases and oil facilities using an unusual weapon for guerrillas and terrorists: aircraft. The implications of those attacks were regional in scope, and in time, aerostats’ value would be driven home by another surprise, this time from Islamic LET(Lashkar-e-Taiba) terrorists operating from Pakistan. The gaps it revealed in India’s defenses, and the deployment of the existing Israeli aerostat systems to protect critical areas in the attack’s aftermath, strongly underlined the systems’ value. Now India’s Navy is now buying them, too, and additional purchases are expected.
Flying Tigers, and Unease in India
In May 2007, Daily India reported that the attacks in Sri Lanka had raised “serious concerns” among the Indian defence forces “since there are greater chances that the high-range RADARS used by military might fail to detect the intrusion.”
This is very possible, given horizontal scan limits imposed by the horizon against low-flying aircraft. The Times of India adds:
“…especially with central and peninsular India being quite devoid of medium-level and low-level radar coverage, as reported by TOI earlier.”
In response, The Indian Navy planned to press more UAVs into service around nearby coastal areas, and also said it would send 2 more ships into the region. The Indian Air Force (IAF) reportedly mobilized small mobile Russian radars around strategic installations, including the nuclear plant at Kalpakkam.
Those are stopgap measures, however, and India was looking for a more permanent solution.
The Aerostat Solution
The Indian Air Force will reportedly be deploying Aerostat Radars (ARs) along the Tamil Nadu coast, and a follow-on order for 4 more systems have been placed with Israel, now that the 2 Israeli EL/M-2083 Aerostat Radars purchased in 2004 and deployed to Kutch and Punjab have proven to be a success.
EL/M-2083 is an early warning and control phased array radar with a reported range of 500 km when deployed at altitude; it is designed to detect hostile approaching aircraft from long ranges, especially when they approach at low altitudes. The EL/M-2083 has also been incorporated into the Israeli Air Force’s extended air defense aerostat system, which appears to perform functions similar to the USA’s currently-in-development JLENS system.
The Times of India adds [links added by DID]:
“In all, IAF has projected a requirement of 13 Aerostat radars, with each one capable of providing three-dimensional low-altitude coverage equal to 30-40 ground-based radars. Incidentally, Pakistan too is acquiring six Aerostat L-88 radar systems from the US in an estimated $155-million deal.
…Interestingly, the EL/M-2083 Aerostat radars are simpler versions of the EL/M-2080 Green Pine radars, which are an integral part of the Israeli Arrow-2 BMD (ballistic missile defence) systems. India has used the two Green Pine radars, imported from Israel in 2001-2002, to develop its own long-range tracking radar which was used in last year’s test of an indigenous “exo-atmospheric” BMD system” [reportedly based on the Prithvi missile]
India has also begun receiving AWACS airspace control aircraft from Israel, as of Q1 2009; the planes are Russian IL-76 aircraft fitted with Israel’s Phalcon system. This will add an important new component to its air defense system – one possessing far more mobility, but offering far less time in the air.
DID would add that low-level threats like the LTTE may receive aerostat attention in the near term, but this is probably just a stopgap measure. India’s ongoing buy of land-based radars will eventually cover that threat, which suggests that the longer-range plan for these aerostats involves different roles. Aerostat-mounted radars trade the advantage of an aircraft’s rapid mobility for incredible persistence, and are especially useful for watching key coastline and border regions, or defending high value areas.
This makes them very useful as a protector of high value targets in a crisis, a usefulness underscored in the wake of the Mumbai massacres. Improved surveillance of India’s coastlines near Pakistan is a valuable result in and of itself, but the aerostats’ depth of coverage could eventually allow them to act as the primary warning system against land-based cruise missiles like Pakistan’s new Babur, and against missiles fired from hostile ships off of India’s coasts.
Updates and Developments
Sept 9/11: A report from India’s CAG auditors criticizes the IAF for severe damage that grounded 1 of the 2 aerostat radars in May 2009, citing both negligence before the accident, and very poor performance afterward in authorizing repairs. Indian Express says that the aerostat will be out of service till the end of 2012.
The radar was 1 of the 2 initially purchased from Israel for INR 6.76 billion, and damage is near total: INR 3.02 billion (currently about $65 million). The three officers responsible were awarded “severe displeasure” for 6 months, but CAG says that the IAF’s subsequent performance was no better:
“The recovery programme of the damaged aerostat would take 18 months from the commencement of repair work. However, the IAF could [only] issue the RFP to vendor for damage assessment in April 2010 and the contract was not concluded by June 2011.”
Sept 23/10: The Times of India reports that:
“Apart from lightweight mountain radars for high altitude areas, plans are also afoot to procure nine more Aerostat radars to add to the two EL/M-2083 Israeli Aerostats inducted earlier as well as two additional Awacs (airborne warning and control systems) to supplement the first three Israeli Phalcon Awacs bought under a $1.1-billion deal.
The overall aim of all this is to ensure Indian airspace, which still has several gaping holes, especially over central and peninsular India, becomes impregnable against hostile aircraft, drones and helicopters.”
May 2009: One of the original 2 Israeli-built aerostat deployed along the western border with Pakistan crashes in difficult weather, destroying it. It had been deployed to monitor low-flying aircraft, and the cause is reported as lapses by 3 officers who failed to monitor weather patterns. Source.
Jan 20/09: The Indian Express reports that the Indian Navy will be buying 2 Israeli aerostat radars of its own for coastal surveillance, in the wake of the Mumbai massacres:
“Sources said the Navy will shortly sign a deal to acquire two EL/M-2083 Aerostat radars, which are already in service with the air force, from Israel. While the acquisition was on the Navy’s shopping list for a long time, it was accelerated by the Government after the Mumbai attack.
The new radars, mounted on a hot-air balloon tethered to the ground, will enhance the Navy’s ability to detect enemy aircraft by providing 3-D coverage in a radius of 500 km. Three aerostat radars, for example, will be able to give seamless coverage for the entire western coast. This would be in addition to the ground-based radars already being operated by the Navy.”
Dec 9/08: The Indian Air Force is deploying 3 Israeli-made aerostats around New Delhi, following the late November 2008 Mumbai massacre and an intelligence alert of a threat from low-flying aircraft. An Aerostat is also being deployed in Agra for the Taj Mahal. The Telegraph of Calcutta.
Sept 18/08: The Times of India quotes Defence ministry sources as saying that India is on course to acquire 4 more Israeli tethered aerostats and EL/M-2083 radars. This follow-on deal has reportedly been cleared by the Defence Acquisitions Council; if adopted, it would raise India’s total Israeli aerostat-radar purchases to about $445 million.
Additional Readings & Sources
- IAI – EL/I-3330 – MPAS – Multi-Payload Aerostat System
- DID – Indian AWACS Moving Forward on 2 Fronts. The IL-76 Phalcon large AWACS, and an effort to buy a smaller aircraft AWACS system to complement it.
- India Defence (May 13/07) – Air Force To Acquire EL/M-2083 Aerostat Radars from Israel
- Times of India (May 14/07) – India to acquire 4 more Aerostats to track air spies
- Daily India (May 14/07) – Threat from low-flying LTTE aircrafts has changed radar option for India
- The Hindu (May 11/07) – LTTE air power no threat to India: Air Chief
- DID (May 8/07) – Sri Lanka: Fulcrums & Lions to Battle Tigers?
- Israel Aircraft Industries (June 13/05) – New EL/M-2083 Phased Array Air Defense Radar To Be Fielded On Israel Air Force’s Extended Air Defense System