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IAF staring at midair refuelling crisis, says CAG report

A decade ago, the IAF identified 10 airfields for mid-air refuelling where infrastructure was to be created, including extended runways, to fully exploit the platform

india Updated: Aug 20, 2017 00:06 IST
Rahul Singh
Rahul Singh
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Indian Air Force,IAF,CAG
An Indian Air Force aircraft demonstrates mid-air refueling capability. The CAG found that there aren’t enough hangars for the refuellers, tanking them up on the ground is a problem and dedicated refuelling corridors are missing.(PTI)

The Indian Air Force appears to be facing a mid-air refuelling crisis and its plans to induct modern tankers to expand the strategic reach of its fighters haven’t yet taken off.

The IAF’s runways are too short for its Ilyushin-78 tanker fleet, their refuelling pods are dogged by failures and the airworthiness is questionable, a comprehensive audit of the Russian-origin fleet has revealed.

In a scathing report, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) also found that there aren’t enough hangars for the refuellers, tanking them up on the ground is a problem and dedicated refuelling corridors are missing. The IAF operates six IL-78 planes bought in 2003-04 at Rs 132 crore a piece. The IAF is yet to float a new tender for six mid-air refuellers costing upwards of $2 billion.

An IL-78 requires a runway length of 11,480 feet to 15,022 feet to carry full fuel loads. A decade ago, the IAF identified 10 airfields for mid-air refuelling where infrastructure was to be created, including extended runways, to fully exploit the platform.

“The runway length at these 10 airfields was below 10,000 feet. It was observed that only runway…was extended partially up to 10,500 feet,” said the report tabled in Parliament in July-end.

The defence ministry responded saying the aircraft would go into overhaul in 2018-19, with upgraded engines allowing them to take off from shorter runways. The report said the serviceability of aerial refuelling pods – hoses used to transfer fuel – was poor due to frequent failures, inadequate repair facilities and poor maintenance support from the manufacturer, adversely impacting operations.

The desired serviceability of the IL-78 fleet should be 70% by IAF’s own standards. But it stood at 49% during 2010-16. Simply put, barely half of the planes were available for missions at any given time.

The IAF has constructed only one hangar for the six refuellers. “Due to non-availability of hangars, the costly air assets remained in the open which adversely affected their life.” The IAF’s IL-76 heavy-lift planes are also plagued by hangar woes, poor serviceability and delayed repairs and servicing.

The IAF doesn’t have enough hydrant refueling systems to tank up the refuellers swiftly and efficiently on the ground. The HRS facility or underground tanks was available only in two out of the 10 airbases identified for IL-78 operations in 2007, the report found. It added the IAF has not obtained approval for creating 12 dedicated corridors for midair refuelling so that commercial traffic is not disrupted.

The IAF needs more tankers to stay prepared to counter China in the eastern sector. The government is expected to float a new tender which will be the third one in the last 10 years, with the previous two failing to end up as contracts due to price complications.

First Published: Aug 20, 2017 00:05 IST