India looks set to open competition for three radar-equipped aerostats, the Defense News Web periodical reported this week.
The move comes after India’s air force advised the defense ministry to prepare a request for information to BAE Systems, Israel Aerospace Industries, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Rosoboronexport and Thales.
Defense News said that the request would be issued within the next three months. India has already purchased three similar aerostats from France’s Rafale since 2005.
The Defense News report said India’s air force was requesting specifications that allow the aerostats to carry a payload of 5,280 pounds to 15,000 feet for just under a period of a month. The request says the floating balloons should also include radars capable of spotting aircraft and incoming missiles of up to 30,000 feet from a range of 180 miles.
Aviation experts say the use of balloons for military operations dates to the earliest days of flight. Although quickly replaced by fixed wing aircraft, balloons are being used by several nations’ militaries to assist in reconnaissance operations.
In recent years, aerostats and other lighter-than-air systems have come to include radar and other surveillance systems mounted on the balloon. Experts say that a permanently deployed aerostat surveillance system can afford a low-cost long-endurance capability not possible with a fixed-wing aircraft.
In February 2004, the British Spyflight Web site reported, that Lockheed Martin was awarded a contract to provide two 56,000-cubic-foot tethered aerostat surveillance systems for deployment in Iraq.
Crews of two people can deploy and operate helium-filled aerostats that are tethered to the ground with a single cable.
In India, the air force plans to integrate aerostat radars with the three Airborne Warning and Control System planes being purchased from Israel, Defense News reported.
“The balloon-borne radars can virtually act as (Airborne Warning and Control Systems) themselves,” an unnamed air force official was quoted saying in the report.
By some accounts, India would like to own a fleet of 13 aerostats, deploying many of them along the Pakistani border in the state of Punjab.
“The payload would consist of air and surface surveillance radars, electronic intelligence and communication intelligence gear, and V/UHF radio telephony equipment and Identification Friend or Foe system,” Defense News reported.
Indian military officials have yet to disclose funding details but analyst Mahindra Singh has said that the new batch of aerostats would be purchase at “a competitive price.”
The Indian navy has also expressed interest in aerostats to boost coastal security. No details, however, have been disclosed.
India has been pumping increasing its defense spending in recent years. Still, it has fallen well short of goals to upgrade its defenses quickly and effectively.
The country ranks as the world’s 10th major spender in defense, doling out $30 billion alone in 2008. Its three major defense companies — Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd., Bharat Electronics Ltd., and Mazagon Dock Ltd. — are said to be unable to meet the country’s new defense demands, forcing India to seek outsourcing options.