The Indian Air Force appears to have shifted into overdrive to expand the reach of its fighter planes, enabling them to deploy swiftly to distant theatres of operations. It is toying with the idea of buying tankers from the US to reinforce its aerial refuelling capabilities.
The air force’s interest in US military contractor Lockheed Martin’s KC-130J tanker, used by the Marines, follows the cancellation of a proposed $2 billion (Rs 9,000 crore) deal for importing six Airbus 330 tankers manufactured by European aerospace major EADS.
The IAF, which currently operates the Ilyushin-78 tankers, is leaning on an existing contract to place orders for KC-130J tankers. It had ordered six C-130J Super Hercules transport planes, configured for special operations and airborne assault, three years back in a deal worth $1.2 billion (Rs 5,400 crore) under the US government’s foreign military sales programme. Military contracts usually have a provision for placing follow on orders.
Jack Crisler, who heads Lockheed Martin’s International Air Mobility Programs, told Hindustan Times, “The IAF has sought details about the capabilities of the KC-130J tanker (a variant of the C-130J). There’s a strong indication that it may place a follow on order for six tankers.” The first C-130J will be delivered to the IAF early next year. Indian pilots will kick off conversion training on the C-130Js at Lockheed Martin’s Marietta facility where the plane is manufactured and Little Rock Air Force Base in Arkansas.
The finance ministry has put the air force on rocky ground by refusing to support the proposed acquisition of Airbus 330 MRTT (multi-role tanker transport) arguing that they were overpriced. The IAF had chosen the Airbus platform over Il-78 tankers after exhaustive trials.
The hunt for new tankers will not end with the KC-130J as the defence ministry is likely to float a fresh international tender for longer range tankers.
The KC-130J can tank up not only fighter planes but also helicopters, enabling them to remain airborne longer.
The air force’s existing helicopter fleet cannot be aerially refuelled.
But the new class of attack and heavy-lift choppers that India proposes to acquire are configured for mid-air refuelling, a senior IAF officer said.