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Cloud on eye to spot enemy jets

Bangalore, June 12: The shadow of the Denel gun controversy could delay a Rs 1,800-crore “eye in the sky” being designed for early detection of enemy fighter jets.

The indigenous airborne early warning (AEW) system, using aircraft manufactured in Brazil, was cleared by the cabinet committee on security and the Union cabinet last year. The acquisition of three Embraer 145 long-range aircraft from Brazil was also cleared.

The aircraft was picked by a joint team of the Indian Air Force and the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) to mount the indigenous radar and an array of electronics systems. Most of these systems, developed at the Electronics and Radar Development Establishment, Bangalore, help spot hostile jets over a range of 300 km.

The choice was ratified by a peer review panel. The schedule envisaged its first flight within three years.

However, the project has hit an air pocket with the DRDO top brass putting on hold the purchase of the Embraer 145 aircraft, apprehending that a single-contract deal could lead to a controversy, as has happened with the Denel gun.

Sources in the defence ministry said a review at this stage would turn the clock back at least three years. “A global tender means a long-drawn process with reviews and more reviews at every step. The joint team (IAF-DRDO) chose the EMB 145 because it is being flown by Greece, Sweden and Mexico and in the multi-billion-dollar SIVAM (system for vigilance of the Amazon) in Brazil,” a source said.

The sources said the hold-up has occurred at a time when the defence ministry has shortlisted a couple of discreet locations with unused runways to move the project away from public glare. The Centre for Airborne Systems expanded its team, hiring more than 50 software engineers for signal processing and other complicated sub-systems.

The project was recently revived with a fresh flow of funds after being put on the back burner following the crash of the sole technology demonstrator in January 1999 near the naval base INS Rajali, Arakkonam, Tamil Nadu.

Unlike the dome-shaped rotating antenna in the airborne surveillance platform (ASP) that was mounted on an Avro aircraft, the electronic phased array radar will be installed on the fuselage of the Embraer 145.

The air force top brass had described the ASP as “the flying chapati” because of the saucer-shaped rotodome fitted on the Avro.

A week before the crash, which killed eight DRDO engineers, the aircraft demonstrated an effective range of 300 km ' detecting fighters flying at 1.5 times the speed of sound ' on land and over the Bay of Bengal.

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