The Search Continues

IAF is looking for several options to meet its requirements for Flight Refuelling Aircraft

Mohammad Asif Khan

Having failed to buy refueller aircraft, the Indian Air Force (IAF) is now exploring different options to bolster its refuelling capabilities, including converting Boeing 767s into Flight Refuelling Aircraft (FRAs). In April 2023, the Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) announced that it had signed a memorandum of understanding with Israel’s Aerospace Industries (IAI) to convert civil (passenger) aircraft to multi mission tanker transport (MMTT) aircraft in India.

A330 MRTT with Mirage 2000 (Photomontage)
A330 MRTT with Mirage 2000 (Photomontage)

According to the HAL press release, the partners will convert pre-owned aircraft into air refuelling aircraft with cargo and transport capabilities. The scope of MoU also covers ‘passenger to freighter aircraft’ conversion along with MMTT conversions,’ the release said. The MoU was signed in Delhi by CEO (MiG Complex), HAL, D. Maiti, and vice president and general manager, aviation group, IAI, Yaacov Berkovitz in the presence of joint secretary (Aero), ministry of defence, Chandraker Bharati.

HAL chairman and managing director R. Madhavan referred to the possible cooperation as “one of the strategic diversification avenues identified by HAL.” IAI president and chief executive officer Boaz Levy said by collaborating on MMTT with the HAL, the IAI would be “supporting the Make in India campaign”.

An aircraft equipped with specialised systems to refuel other aircraft in mid-flight, extending their operational range and endurance, the FRA is a critical capability for air forces around the world. The IAF, which currently operates the ageing fleet of six IL-78 Midas, has been looking to acquire modern FRA for many years. The IL-78s, a variation of 1985’s IL-76 transport aircraft, was inducted into the IAF in 2003. The veteran platform, equipped with Israeli fuel transmission system, has reached a point of diminishing returns. Maintenance challenges, particularly pertaining to their refuelling pods persist, often ground them, compromising their operational readiness.

“Nobody denies the fact that India needs air-to-air refuelling. The IL-78 is an old aircraft and it has issues. These matters have to be taken into consideration in the long run,” says Gp Capt R.K. Narang (Retd). According to him, options like converting existing aircraft to an FRA would be a cost-effective solution. Given this, the HAL-IAI MoU is most opportune. If it fructifies, it will give a major boost to the IAF’s aerial refuelling capabilities. Additionally, according to media reports, the IAF is also in conversation with Airbus, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin for the procurement of six pre-used refuellers. The three companies are offering the A330 MRTT, KC-46A Pegasus and the KC-130J Super Hercules aircraft, respectively.


Such A Long Quest

The IAF’s quest for FRAs began in the early 1990s. In 1991, the IAF issued a tender to acquire 10 FRAs. However, the tender was cancelled in 1995 because of budgetary constraints. Finally, it bought six IL-78s in 2003. However, the platforms faced availability issues from the time they were inducted, forcing the IAF to float a tender for a new line of refuellers in 2006.

In May 2009, the chief of air staff Air Chief Marshal Fali Homi Major announced that the IAF had selected Airbus’ A330 MRTT. Thereafter price negotiations with the company started. However, within a year the tender was cancelled as the platform was found to be too expensive. In late 2010, the IAF issued yet another tender for six FRAs. Once again there were only two responders—Airbus with A330 MRTT and Ilyushin with IL-78. And once again in 2013, the IAF shortlisted the former despite the IL-78 being cheaper. The IAF, however, argued that the A330 MRTT had lower operational cost and hence would be cheaper over its life cycle. But the price negotiations dragged on and in 2016, the IAF was once again forced to cancel the tender. In 2019, the IAF issued a fresh tender to acquire six aerial refuellers. The tender was cancelled again in 2021. The IAF is now in the process of issuing a fresh tender.

Given this history, the conversion of the civilian Boeing 767 passenger aircraft into an MMTT aircraft would be a cost-effective way for the IAF to meet its aerial refuelling requirements. The Boeing 767 is a well-established aircraft with a proven track record. It is also a relatively large aircraft, which means that it can carry a lot of fuel.

Former test pilot Gp Capt. Sanjeev Kanwar (retd) says, “Used passenger aircraft can be converted into many different roles and one of them is the MMTT...” The IAI is a world leader in the development and manufacture of aerial refuelling systems. It has already converted a number of Boeing 767 passenger aircraft into MMTT aircraft for the air forces of Israel, Brazil and Columbia.

In 2021, India was in talks with France to lease one A330 MRTT from the French Air Force for training purposes. The leasing of this aircraft, which would be operated by the IAF but maintained by the French Air Force, was likely to be succeeded by the lease of five additional A330 MRTTs to augment the reach and combat capability of IAF fighters. However, has been no public information on whether the lease of the A330 MRTT from France has materialised.

Regarding the option of leasing FRAs, Gp Capt. Kanwar says, “Leasing an FRA is a very good idea but there are very few companies that offer this service. This avoids the hassles of maintaining an entire fleet of aircraft, which can be a daunting task not only for management but also cost.”

Meanwhile, the United States has also offered to sell India six KC-46A Pegasus tanker aircraft. The KC-46A has a large fuel capacity, can transfer fuel to other aircraft at a high rate and is compatible with a wide range of aircraft. However, it has been plagued by technical problems since it entered service and is more expensive than other tanker aircraft.


Operational Envelope

This shortfall limits India’s ability to support its fighter aircraft in long-range missions as well as to project its power over long distances. A robust FRA capability would allow India to project power over longer distances and support its allies in a wide range of contingencies. This would strengthen India's hand in regional and global diplomacy and would deter its adversaries from taking aggressive actions. Its absence is particularly critical given the infrastructure limitations of the IAF in the border areas.

In modern warfare, the FRA allows fighter aircraft to extend their range and endurance, which is critical for conducting long-range missions such as air superiority, air interdiction and strategic bombing. The FRA also allows transport aircraft to carry more cargo and personnel over longer distances, which is essential for supporting ground forces and humanitarian operations. A strong FRA capability would allow the IAF to support its ground forces in remote areas and to sustain operations over longer periods of time. This would make the IAF more capable of responding to a wide range of threats and will strengthen India's overall defence posture.

Gp Capt. Sanjeev Kanwar says, “The range for fighter operations can be doubled if not tripled with the use of FRAs. Today we have many types of fighter aircraft which are capable of carrying out missions for more than five to six hours. The Sukhoi and Rafale are capable of missions up to eight to 10 hours.”

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