Whacking AWACS

DRDO Anti-AEW Missile
A rendering of the DRDO’s STAR missile which is forming the baseline configuration for an anti-airborne early warning air-to-air missile.

India is developing an anti-AWACS missile, possibly with Russian assistance.

It largely went unnoticed, but reports emerged in June that India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is developing an anti-Airborne Early Warning (AEW) system missile. The anti-AEW missile forms part of the DRDO’s Supersonic Target (STAR) missile initiative.

STAR is focused on two efforts: The first is a surface-to-air missile designed to be launched from warships to defeat anti-ship missiles. The second is developing an anti-AEW Air-to-Air Missile (AAM). Reports continue that the AAM could have a secondary role as an anti-radiation missile. A baseline STAR prototype has been developed and should be ready for testing later this year. The STAR anti-AEW weapon is earmarked for the Indian Air Force’s Hindustan Aeronautics Limited Tejas Mk.1/2 combat aircraft.

Russian efforts

KS-172 Anti-AEW Missile
A rendering of Russia’s KS-172 air-to-air missile. It appears Russian Air Force interest in this weapon, while initially enthusiastic, later waned.

Anti-AEW missiles are a somewhat niche capability. Russia commenced development of her KS-172 anti-AEW AAM back in the mid-1980s. Development seemed to stall in the 1990s with seemingly lukewarm interest from the Russian Air Force. Interest revived in the early 2000s, possibly resulting from the gradual decline in relations between Russia and the West.


With a range of 216 nautical miles (400 kilometres) the KS-172 was believed to have a dual seeker comprising an Active Radar Homing (ARH) system and Electronic Support Measure (ESM). The ESM detects signals from the targeted radar, locates their source and uses these to guide the missile to its target. The ARH lets the missile be guided to its target via updates received from the fire control radar of the launching aircraft. This may mean the missile can still be guided towards its target should the targeted radar stop emitting. This may provide a useful back-up if the missile’s ESM loses lock or be unable to exploit the radar signals for guidance. Such eventualities could occur if the AEW radar uses Low Probability of Detection/Interception (LPI/D) techniques. The ESM probably covers wavebands of one gigahertz to six gigahertz. This encompasses L-band, S-band and C-band frequencies commonly used by AEW radars. Whether the ESM can overcome LPI/D techniques remains unknown.

In 2004 reports emerged that the Indian government was in negotiations with its Russian counterpart for the bilateral development of an AAM known as the R-172. These negotiations were finalised in 2005. Since then, various incarnations of this have been shown at defence exhibitions. It would not be surprising if these were mock-ups of representative weapons. Confusingly, the same weapon has been shown with several monikers; K-100, K-100-1 and 172S-1 being three aliases. These have been exhibited alongside Sukhoi Su-30 (NATO reporting name Flanker) family combat aircraft. Su-30 variants are flown by the Indian and Russian armed forces.


What is the relationship between the DRDO’s STAR initiative and Russia’s KS-172? Given the agreement concluded between both governments, is the anti-AEW STAR AAM the result of this partnership? It is also unclear if and how Russia contributed to this effort. Did Russian engineers simply handover blueprints and know-how vis-à-vis the KS-172 and wish DRDO engineers luck? Alternatively, was there a heavier Russian involvement? Numerous enquiries to the DRDO by Armada went unanswered. It will be interesting to watch whether Russia chooses to acquire the anti-AEW STAR missile variant for its own combat aircraft? It could be handy for Russia to acquire a missile for which the DRDO has assumed most, or all, of the development risk.

Should testing go ahead as planned by the end of 2022 conservatively an anti-AEW STAR variant could reach an initial operational capability by circa 2027. The weapon could be an important force multiplier for Indian airpower given the use of AEW platforms by her Pakistan and People’s Republic of China rivals.

by Dr. Thomas Withington