A Hyderabad-based company is poised to manufacture state-of-the-art radars for India's Sukhoi Su-30MKI fighter jets

by Venu Gopal Narayanan

Around a quarter century ago, the nature of aerial warfare underwent a revolutionary transformation with the advent of a new type of radar. It could be fitted into both planes and missiles, and was called the AESA: an Active Electronic Scanned Array.

With an AESA fitted in its nosecone, a fighter plane could now detect smaller objects from farther away, gain a tremendous first-shot advantage, and unleash a missile with its own, smaller AESA, which improved accuracy, and the probability of a kill, by orders of magnitude.

The AESA also triggered a paradigm shift in electronic warfare, and electronic counter measures. Scanners could be jammed. Missiles could be forced to veer off course. A pilot could be electronically ‘blinded’, and his countermeasures to inbound threats rendered ineffective.

At the heart of this revolution lay a semiconductor made of Gallium Arsenide (GaAs), which could emit pulses furtively, in multiple directions, at frequencies which made some features of otherwise-stealthy aircraft fatally redundant, and with far more power than ever before. Its formidability was encapsulated in a chilling descriptor: “first look, first shot, first kill”.

India missed this revolution because, in those days, defence procurement from abroad was the norm – except in the arena of ballistic and cruise missiles. As a result, we only got what a vendor nation would let us have, and were forced to either remain content with what he had, or pay through our noses for a prohibitively-expensive upgrade.

This critical gap was covered to some extent early this century, through the acquisition of the BARS radar along with the Sukhoi Su-30MKI from Russia. But the BARS, although an extremely powerful radar, was still only a passive-scanning array. The gap closed slightly further two decades later with the purchase of French Rafales, which carry a modern AESA radar plus a full-fledged electronic warfare system.

A third effort to close this yawning gap was through the purchase of Israeli radars, as upgrades for our MiG-21s and the TEJAS MK-1. Nonetheless, the gap remains, and a deplorable legacy of import dependency continues to hamper our fighter fleet.

At the same time, a second silent revolution is taking place across the world today, in the obscure domain of radar technology. A new generation of semiconductors, made of Gallium Nitride (GaN), are driving a quantum leap in a pilot’s ability to detect, disrupt, and destroy a threat.

The revolution is global, the competition is fierce, and GaN-based radars are once again set to rewrite the rules of aerial warfare. A number of countries are in the race, including America, Britain, France, Israel, Japan, South Korea, Sweden. Their GaN radar projects are in various stages of progress.

Very little is known of China’s efforts, but there are unverified reports that their most advanced fighter jet, the J-20 Chengdu, will sport a GaN-based AESA radar within this decade. We know that they are not quite there yet because their ‘iron-brother’, Pakistan, was forced to source GaN-based receivers for their Chinese fighter jets from Italy last year.

SAAB, the Swedish industrial giant, tested its new GaN radar last year. The Americans are fitting new GaN radars manufactured by Raytheon onto their Navy’s ageing F/A-18A-D Hornet fighter jets. Experts believe that this new GaN radar will double the jet’s detection distance.

Ironically, they have been forced to do this on account of delays in the rolling out their latest fighter jet, the F-35, which is meant to replace the Hornets. Even more ironically, this means that a plane designed in the 1970s will have a superior radar to one which is meant to dominate the coming two decades.

And then, there is India – a country which hardly ever features in articles on radars written by top global defence industry experts. If only they bothered to read documents available in the public domain, they would learn to their surprise, that India is all set to steal a march in the cutting-edge domain of GaN-semiconductor technology.

As unbelievable as it may sound, India has not only mastered GaN technology, but is also applying this mastery to a whole host of military systems, including different types of radars, for varied purposes. The bigger surprise is that this silent revolution is being propelled by a remarkably-productive partnership between the public and private sectors.

The breaking news is that a Hyderabad-based company named Astra Microwave is poised to manufacture a GaN-based radar for our Sukhoi Su-30MKI fighter jets, based on technologies originally developed by our Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO).

This is the same company which recently supplied the largest, most powerful, game-changing, ship-based radar in the world to the Indian Navy for testing. It is being developed for the Nave’s next generation of warships.

Here is the chronology which has hitherto lain ‘under the radar’, so to speak:

On 25 February 2022, Astra’s Managing Director, S Gurunatha Reddy, said in an investors’ meet that they are in the execution phase of a pilot order from DRDO, for a fighter jet radar. This is the Gallium Arsenide-based Uttam radar developed by DRDO which is set to end India’s crippling dependency on imports of such critical systems.

In September 2022, it was reported that DRDO had handed over the Uttam radar’s technology for manufacturing to Hindustan Aeronautics Limited. It will be installed on the Tejas and the Sukhoi Su-30MKI, with bulk production scheduled to begin in 2024.

On 10 February 2023, Astra announced that they are now ready to manufacture Gallium Nitride-based Uttam radars for, hold your breath, the upcoming TEJAS MK-2, and the Sukhoi Su-30MKI. Note: the first prototype of the TEJAS MK-2, a truly substantial improvement on earlier variants, is expected to roll out by the end of this year, and its first flight is scheduled for the end of 2024.

This is a staggering announcement, and its implications are tremendous.

First, fighter jets of the Indian Air Force will be equipped with cutting-edge radars by 2026-27, which will make them far more lethal than they already are. To put it in some perspective, the Sukhoi Su-30MKI, which has been screaming for an upgrade for ages, will carry a radar which is far, far more advanced than the one our Rafales have.

Second, a GaN radar will exponentially increase the Indian Air Force’s offensive and defensive capabilities in multiple domains, including detection, electronic warfare, electronic countermeasures, and, perhaps most importantly, in electronic counter-countermeasures (a tactic by which the enemy’s countermeasures are neutralized).

Third, it will extend the life and utility of a Sukhoi Su-30MKI, which presently constitutes the backbone of the Indian Air Force, well into the next decade.

Fourth, and there is no polite way to put it, these new radars (both the Gallium Arsenide and Gallium Nitride ones) will let our jets burn through any electronic system which Pakistan has, or is planning to obtain this decade. Again, to put it in perspective, if the Indian Air Force could execute a flawless, unimpeded strike on Balakot in 2019, using aged jets with ageing electronics, imagine what they will be capable of once our new jets with new radars growl menacingly into the skies?

Fifth, India’s silent revolution in radar technology closes the gap with China. Simply put, our northern neighbour’s current advantages in numbers and stealth technology will count for much less, as will their electronic warfare tactics, against these radical new developments.

Sixth, and this is something which tends to be overlooked, the application of these advances in semiconductor technology is not restricted to fighter jet radars alone. Instead, they will greatly boost the performance of a number of systems which, too, are dependent on an AESA. These include air defence systems, land-based tracking units, and, most pertinently, missiles. They will all be able to probe farther, detect more accurately, disrupt more devastatingly, and lock on targets more effectively.

The Astra MK-1 air-to-air missile, for example, has already been upgraded with an AESA seeker by DRDO. It is, thus, inevitable that the MK-2 and the far more potent MK-3 versions will be guided by the same technology which a Sukhoi Su-30MKI or a TEJAS will receive in a few short years.

In conclusion, we see once again, as with the Navy’s new radar, that India is gradually building less to catch up, and building more for the future.

As India sheds an unenviable legacy of import dependency, bridges the technology gap in critical areas, and procurement costs decline, the cost of belligerence is rising for unfriendly nations in exponential proportions.