Overhaul Time

Airbus and Boeing are vying for IAF’s refueler tender

Rohan Ramesh

For many years now, the Indian Air Force has been operating force multipliers such as Fleet Refuelling Aircraft (FRA) and Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) thus extending the operational capabilities of its Air fleet.

KC46 tanker refuelling C-17 Globemaster

Yet, this operation has been beset with multiple problems. For example, the IL 76 and especially the Il 78 which serves in the Indian Air Force as the fleet refuelling aircraft have been facing issues. Their electronics are of 1980s vintage are only due for an overhaul this year.

The aerial refuelling pods (ARPs) serviceability record is pathetic, mainly due to poor maintenance support from the Original Equipment Manufacturer. Also repairs of these pods have been hindered due to certain limitations in the repair of pods at air bases and depots.

This has led the IAF to look elsewhere for its fleet refuelling needs. The IAF had earlier floated two tenders for aerial refuelling aircraft. IL 78 and Airbus’ multi-role tanker transport (MRTT) 330 responded to the RFIs which was ultimately won by the European consortium.

Again, price issues were the niggling point and the tenders were abandoned. The IAF on January 25 this year started the process to acquire six aerial refuelling tankers. This time Boeing too has pitched in with its new aerial refuelling aircraft known as the KC-46 Pegasus.

Around six or seven Ilyushin Il-78MKIs serve the Indian Air Force in the aerial refuelling tanker role. As the IL-78 is a fuel guzzler, India is looking to further augment its aerial refuelling fleet.

The IAF wants a twin-engine refueler and this means the IL-78s are out of the race. Airbus’ A330 Multi-Role Tanker/Transport (MRTT) and Boeing KC-46 Pegasus are now vying for the contract.

Aerial refuelling allows the aircraft which has been refuelled to remain airborne longer, thereby extending its range. This process also allows a jet to take off with complete combat payload and refuel immediately. Also, aerial refuelling allows an aircraft to change from one combat theatre to another and maximises pilot efficiency.

India has been operating three Israeli Phalcon AWACS systems since 2009. Now the government is planning to augment the fleet and is looking to buy two more Phalcon systems from Israel which will bring the total number of AWACS been operated by India to five.

DRDO has also produced the indigenous ‘Netra’ mini-AWACS or airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) systems for the Indian Air Force. DRDO is now working on a bigger AWACS version which could be integrated onto an Airbus A330 platform.

The IAF currently operates 3 Ilyushin Il-76 AWACS equipped with state-of-the-art Israeli EL/W-2090 radars. Two Brazilian Embraer EMB-145s serve the IAF as its AEW&C aircraft. These planes are equipped with DRDO’s Netra Airborne early warning and control system. One more EMB-145 with the Netra system is on order.


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