IAF to begin fresh hunt for mid-air refuelling aircraft
After two failed attempts to induct new tankers during the last 12 years, the Indian Air Force is (IAF) preparing to begin a fresh hunt for new-generation mid-air refuelling planes to extend the reach of its fighter jets, two senior IAF officers said on condition of anonymity on Wednesday.
The official process to buy tankers is expected to begin within two months with the IAF seeking acceptance of necessity (AoN) from the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) --- the defence ministry’s apex procurement body --- to take the proposal forward, said one of the officers cited above.
Under India’s defence procurement rules, the AoN by the council (headed by the defence minister) is the first step towards buying a weapon or platform. “We plan to seek the AoN for six new tankers in November-December. It will clear the way for sending request for proposals (RFPs) to foreign military contractors,” the second officer said. The refuellers could cost more than $2 billion.
The IAF currently operates a fleet of six Russian-origin Ilyushin-78 tankers that are plagued by maintenance problems and more refuellers are required to stay prepared to counter China in the eastern sector.
According to an August 2017 Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) report, the desired serviceability of the Il-78 fleet should be 70% by IAF’s own standards but it stood at 49% during 2010-16 --- barely half of the planes were available for missions at any given time.
Experts said it was imperative for the IAF to strengthen its refuelling capabilities to allow fighter jets to stay airborne longer.
“Flight refuelling aircraft are vital combat enablers. The IAF has just six, and two previous attempts at procurement faltered due to lack of funds, despite an aircraft being shortlisted both times. We have lost more than 10 years. Hopefully, wiser counsel will prevail this time,” said Air Vice Marshal Manmohan Bahadur (retd), additional director general, Centre for Air Power Studies.
This will be the third tender for air-to-air refuelling planes since 2007, with Il-78 and Airbus A330 multi-role tanker transport (MRTT) offered by European aerospace company EADS, competing in the previous contests that failed to end up as contracts due to price complications.
American (Boeing KC-46A), Russian (Il-78) and European (A330 MRTT) military contractors are expected to compete for the upcoming tender, industry executives said. Israel Aerospace Industries’ Bedek Aviation Group could also participate in the contest with its Boeing 767-200 multi-mission tanker transport --a conversion of the Boeing aircraft by Bedek Aviation.
In August 2017, the national auditor found that the refuelling pods of the Il-78s were dogged by failures and the tanker’s airworthiness was questionable. The comprehensive audit of the tanker fleet also revealed that tanking them up on the ground was a problem, dedicated refuelling corridors were missing and there weren’t enough hangars for the aircraft.