The Indian Air Force for about 6 years now, has experienced the prowess of the Netra AEW&C Platform, the premier Airborne Surveillance Platform in service alongside the IAF Phalcon AWACS. The currently serving 3 aircraft belong to the No.200 “Skanda” Squadron, based out of AFS Bhatinda, Punjab. The Netra has extensively seen missions tied to ELINT and SIGINT, on both Northern and Eastern frontiers.

Understanding the System of Systems

For any Airborne Surveillance Platform to effectively produce results, we need to first understand what a platform of this caliber is expected to have, and how it should provide actionable data to its operators.

Primary Radar – What this really means in reality is, where the Netra flies, it will be able to extend the Air Force’s pair of eyes by 250-350 km, and pick up targets of all kinds, be it a Fixed Wing, Rotary Manned, or Unmanned aircraft, and have the ability to constantly track it as long as it is in its range. Now, this as we all know, is being served by the Primary Radar (AAAU) – Active Antenna Array Unit), which is a state-of-the-art AESA-based radar, capable of searching and tracking up to 300+ km with 500+ tracking objects in real-time providing 240 degree coverage. We will shortly discuss this in-depth

Identification Friend or Foe (Secondary Surveillance Radar) – Also called the secondary surveillance radar (SSR) in the case of Netra, this is a system that interrogates objects being picked up by the radar, by communicating with the transponder of the target aircraft (the assumption being all aircraft, civilian or military carry transponders), and helps the operator know if what is being picked up on screen is a friendly or not along with a host of information such as altitude, bearing heading . It works in tandem with Primary Radar in real time.

EW and SIGINT Payloads – The ability to electronically scan, record, process, and intercept signals at various frequencies being transmitted in the environment, while being airborne, can be pivotal, and the NETRA is capable of this mission objective.

Communication Package – Ground and Air – With a platform that is airborne and collecting massive amounts of information and signals in the air, it is very important to share this information, or exploit it in favor of our friendlies by providing them with crucial updates, or warning them early in the time of any impending dangers. Roughly categorized, there are 3 ways in which an operator from NETRA can share information with airborne or ground stations. 1- Standard Radio – 5 UHF operators (A2A and A2G) + 2 pilots 2- SATCOM (Ku-Band) – BLoS Communication to Ground/Air (via GSAT) 3- C-Band Data Link – LoS communication to Ground/Air.

Who are the operators?

The primary Netra crew consists of 2 pilots, and 5 operators, who man one dedicated station each called the Operator Work Station (OWS), these are usually trained officers from IAF with background being fighter controllers, weapon systems officers, and seasoned air-traffic control crew.

In fact, during the development stages of NETRA, notable efforts were taken to model the Human-Machine Interface and the Operator Workstations to be as identical as possible to the Phalcon AWACS. Experienced fighter controllers from IAF’s No.50 Adwitiya Squadron were present on deputation to CABS to ensure sound inputs during project management and also ensured, crew interoperability could be enabled.

On a full mission profile, with 2 pilots, the NETRA files with

  • 1x – Weapons Director On Board
  • 2x – Communication Support Measures Officer
  • 1x – Electronic Support Measures Officer (ESMO)
  • 1x – Mission Commander

An exclusive insight into the Netra OWS (Operator Work Station) is shown below, giving the 240-degree coverage perspective. (If you look closely, you will notice the finer details with options to enable and select (Top Right) – ASP, ESM, CSM, GASP Reconstruction, etc)

Control of the Skies?

With the powerful radar airborne, various sub-systems offer multiple channels of information in real-time. This can be in audio, video, or signals across a spectrum of frequencies. Successful control over skies is established when effective data fusion takes place, which will make sense of the data points being collected in real time.

Now, each of the 5 fully configurable OWS (Operator Work Station) has full access to data being collected and processed from Primary Radar, IFF, Electronic Support Measures Suite as well as Self Protection Suite.

Operators would have 240-degree coverage of airborne assets, both friendly and hostile.

While being airborne, the platform can plot the following for operators, in two modes – Air-to-Air and Air-to-Sea-Surface Mode

  1. Air Situation Picture (ASP) / Command & Control (C2) i.e., ASP/C2: This refers to Netra’s capability to gather and process information about the air situation in a given area, including the location, speed, and direction of aircraft. The ASP/C2 system allows the Netra to provide real-time information about the air situation to ground-based command and control centers, which can use this information to make decisions about air operations.
  2. ASP/C2 + CSM: In addition to ASP/C2, the Netra also has a capability known as Communication Support Measures (CSM). CSM allows the aircraft to detect, intercept, and analyze communications signals from other aircraft or ground-based sources. By combining ASP/C2 with CSM, the Netra can provide a more complete picture of the air situation, including not only the location of aircraft but also their communications activities.
  3. ASP/C2 + ESM: Similar to CSM, the Netra also has a capability called Electronic Support Measures (ESM), which allows the aircraft to detect and identify radar signals from other aircraft or ground-based sources. By combining ASP/C2 with ESM, the Netra can provide a more complete picture of the air situation, including not only the location of aircraft but also their radar activities.
  4. Global Air Situation Picture (GASP) with Reconstruction & Playback: The GASP system can provide a global air situation picture, which combines information from multiple Netra aircraft or aircraft of compatible and same class to create a comprehensive view of the air situation in a larger area. Additionally, NETRA also has the capability to record and analyze data about the air situation in a given area over time. The GASP Playback system allows the Netra to reconstruct past air operations and provide playback of air operations for training or analysis purposes. This system can provide valuable insights into the effectiveness of air operations and help improve future operations. For crew training purposes, Image & Voice Playback(IVPB) and Onboard Training mode have been made available so they can be useful during a post-mission briefing.

What does being Network Centric Means?

Netra is called a network-centric warfare enabler because it is designed to facilitate network-centric warfare (NCW) operations. NCW is a military doctrine that emphasizes the use of information technology and networked communications to enable faster and more effective decision-making in military operations.

Netra is a critical component of NCW because it provides real-time situational awareness to commanders and pilots in the field. Netra’s sensors and communication systems allow it to collect and process large amounts of data from multiple sources, including ground-based radars, other aircraft, and satellites. This data is then analyzed and transmitted to commanders and pilots in real time, enabling them to make faster and more informed decisions.

Netra’s network-centric capabilities also enable it to share information with other platforms on the battlefield, including other aircraft, ground-based command and control centers, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). This sharing of information enables commanders to have a more complete picture of the battlefield, which is essential for effective decision-making.

How IAF Netra is a Force Multiplier During Combat Scenarios?

To understand this, let’s simulate what is called a Large Force Engagement (LFE) Exercise, During a LFE exercise, the IAF may deploy a large number of aircraft to conduct complex air operations, such as air-to-air combat, ground attack missions, and air-to-ground support operations. The Netra AEW&C aircraft can provide critical support to these operations by gathering real-time intelligence and providing command and control capabilities to ground-based operators.

As the Netra flies over the designated area, it can use its advanced sensors and communication systems to gather data about the air situation, including details about friendly and hostile aircraft, ground-based threats, and other relevant data. This information is then transmitted to ground-based operators through the Ground Exploitation Station (GES), which processes the information and provides a comprehensive view of the air situation and further forms the link between NETRA and IACCS (Integrated Air Command and Control System)

With this real-time intelligence, ground-based operators can make more informed decisions about air operations, such as

  • directing fighters to engage enemy aircraft,
  • intercepting radio, and cellular signals from an Area of Interest (AoI)
  • coordinating ground attack missions, and
  • providing air-to-ground support to friendly forces.

Shown below is the components involved and connected to the airborne surveillance platform NETRA

Modes of communication spotted here –


Aircraft to Aircraft – VHF and UHF radio

NETRA Aircraft to Ground – CBDL (C Band Data Link)

Ground – Netra – SATCOM – KBDL (Ku-Band Data Link)

Chinese AWACS Caught on Screen – Garam Hawa

The IAF AEW&C Platform has had the distinction of sniffing emissions across the border way before induction. One night sortie out of Jodhpur AFS and flight in parallel from the border roughly 70-100 km, the NETRA soon received a ground radio call, “Garam Hawa” (code for activity across the border)

This turned out to be a Chinese ZDK AWACS operated by PAF, along with fighter escorts, all aircraft were identified by ESM on board and marked by IFF, it was a game of track until I am bingo!

NETRA has also participated in many notable exercises, including international exercises like Cope India 2018 which was its first international participation. This includes non-publicly organized Large Fleet Engagement Exercises (LFE), whose outcomes are often not disclosed, and NETRA has often given the Phalcon AWACS a run for its money.

Achieving this maturity and trust in the platform, took nearly a decade. And it is only now that the scope for future variants and successors is in full praise and approval. Taking a quick look at the timeline below of how long NETRA took to materialize,

  • 2004: Project started by the Indian Air Force and the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) to develop an indigenous Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) system.
  • 2006: Contract awarded to Embraer of Brazil for the supply of Embraer EMB-145 aircraft for the project.
  • 2008: First prototype of the AEW&C system was successfully tested in Brazil.
  • 2009-2011: Development and integration of the radar and other sensor systems onto the Embraer EMB-145 aircraft.
  • 2012-2013: Flight trials and testing of the AEW&C system in India.
  • 2014-2016: Development of software and integration of communication systems onto the aircraft.
  • 2017: IAF Netra AEW&C system was officially inducted into service by the Indian Air Force.

Future of AEW&C- the Netra Mk2 – Opinions

  • Most importantly, as the radar upgrades itself along with subsystems, this will naturally increase range optimally as well as the number of objects that can be tracked and worked with. And in line with this capability, the number of Operator Work Stations has been increased from 5 to 12, which is almost doubling the capacity. This now gives us more fine-tuned roles and duties to be carried out by officers on board.
  • 6 aircraft are being prepared for this role, based on the A-321 aircraft, which will have longer endurance than the former Embraer 145-J aircraft, which is a welcome move given that the AEW&C is one of those extended power-projection tools which is absolutely essential to establish authority over missions like “Combat Air Patrol”, a long-range will go a long way in ensuring that mission profiles are planned for a longer duration enhancing situational awareness.
  • The NETRA Mk2 family comes with all the inherited systems that were created during the NETRA Mk1A project, such as the AESA based Primary Radar, IFF Mk2, ESM, and CSM systems. Given that the CABS-DRDO has a dedicated Mission Software Support Facility (MSSF), that is responsible for the maintenance and upgradation of the AEW&C airborne and ground systems software. And it is worth noting that, over the decade, the maturity of software has increased and if it were to be built today, these systems would be more capable than before. CABS-DRDO from the inception of the NETRA project has followed a decent approach to software sanity and project handling with an established Product Lifecycle Management undertaking.
  • On paper currently, what is known as NETRA Mk2 is only a bigger and better version of the existing aircraft, if you were to scale this up, and remove some of the constraints caused by the platform itself (Size, space, etc), you would have the Netra Mk2. There might be newer and upgraded variants of sensor-communication suites that might fit in, but not an entirely new system itself.
  • It will also be interesting to wait and observe if the A321 aircraft procured for conversion, would be fitted with special kits for A2A (Air-to-Air) Refueling, which currently is not shown or advertised as of today.

The power we hold,

Having now mastered the ability to undertaking such complex product developments of Primary Radar, IFF, Battle Management Software, Mission Computers and so on in near record times, each of them carefully coordinated with many sister labs of DRDO along with Indian private firms, one should realize what we have come to be. We are now in a situation to integrate these systems in just about any platform, and this precisely is “Atmanirbharta”

We must note that only 4 countries in the world currently have established the capabilities to develop in-house Airborne Surveillance Platforms. It is not that India during this project did not approach foreign vendors, we did, and we do have parts (starting from the airframe itself and some critical EW components) ,

But here is an interesting cost-analysis that was published by CABS-DRDO in their Monograph “The Incredible Journey of Indian AWACS”, you will notice at multiple points in time for various requirements, the quotes were much much expensive by the foreign companies compared to what CABS was looking at if it were to be done in house.

But the decision was made to go the indigenous way, and the rest is history!

4 thoughts on “The Netra AEW&C – Unlocking Network Centric-Warfare for IAF”
  1. Nice content, the article provide detailed picture of Betra and it’s application in network centric warfare.
    Please make an article on armaments and layouts of the unsinkable aircraft carriers of India. That would be highly informative.

  2. Feel we should look to order 3 additional Netra Mk1, specially considering the DAC approved deal of 2 additional Phalcons (based on IL76 from Russia) has been stalled for a couple of years now and is unlikely to go forward anytime soon due to the Russia -Ukraine conflict. In that case ordering 3 additional Netra Mk1 would only help add to our fleet of AWACS. India requires anywhere between 18-24 AWACS to tackle a 2 front threat.

    By 2030, we should plan to have 15 AWACS in our fleet consisting of 3 Phalcons + 6 Netra Mk1 + 6 Netra Nk2.

    These 15 AWACS would be a big force multiplier in any future conflict and would greatly enhance IAF’s situational awareness. Infact not only IAF, but all 3 forces, specially in an era of jointness where all Air assets are being proposed to be under a single command, all 3 forces can utilise these platforms to enhance their situational awareness & get an accurate picture of their respective theaters.

  3. Excellent summarization of the NETRA project. This would work as a slap on the faces of the Chandigarh lobby and the import fans. As a defense enthusiast, I never understood the conundrum, our forces regularly hold bilateral and multilateral exercises but op swift retort was somehow required for IAF to wake up to its deficiency of force multipliers.

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