Take Off Stalled

Airbus A330 MRTT and Boeing KC-767 are the only NG tankers available today

Atul Chandra

Airborne refuelling aircraft are large and expensive assets to own and maintain but are a vital force multiplier. Despite the importance of inducting more such platforms into the Indian Air Force (IAF), delays have dogged the contract for six Airbus A330 Multi Role Transport Tankers (A330 MRTT). The type has been the preferred choice in airborne tanker competitions and Airbus has received orders for 41 MRTTs till date.

The Airbus A330 MRTT has notched up 41 orders till date. Singapore, South Korea and France are yet to receive their aircraft
The Airbus A330 MRTT has notched up 41 orders till date. Singapore, South Korea and France are yet to receive their aircraft

With deliveries of 26 aircraft having been completed as of August 31, 15 remain to be delivered to customers. Singapore, South Korea and France are yet to receive their aircraft on order and at current production rates Airbus has more than three years of orders for the A330 MRTT line. The Indian order is vital as there simply aren’t many countries that can afford (or have the need) large airborne refuelling aircraft. “There are not many countries in the world who can afford to fly a strategic tanker like this one,” say industry sources.

India’s acquisition of six A330 MRTTs has now been stuck for three and a half years, with Airbus having to extend the validity of its bid numerous times. The bid to acquire a modern air-to-air refuelling aircraft is now approaching a decade, with no final contract in sight yet. There is now a real risk of cost escalation on account the risk of escalation. The A330 has also been chosen as the platform for the India AWACS programme.

The tender for six airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) system aircraft was issued in March 2014 and Airbus emerged as the sole bidder for the contract. The green aircraft between A330 MRTT and AWACS is the same and the platform commonality between the two large and expensive assets will certainly help maintain high fleet availability levels over the life of the aircraft.

Another important aspect of the A330 is its multi-role capability to undertake a variety of roles from a transport aircraft to an airborne communication outpost and Airbus officials stress, “A330 is not only a tanker but a very capable transport aircraft.” The A330 can carry cargo and passengers, while fulfilling its tanker role. Aircraft such as the A330 MRTT can also reduce the use of expensive heavy transport aircraft such as the Boeing C-17 Globemaster III, of which the Indian Air Force has 10 in its fleet.

The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) which has taken delivery of five MRTTs found that the rate of usage of their C-17s actually came down once the A330 was inducted into service. Not to mention that the cost of operating the A330 MRTT which is based on a civilian airliner is much less than a military strategic airlifter such as the C-17. Other missions can also benefit from the presence of a multirole tanker asset, when flying to Red Flag, the IAF uses two IL-76s but the same job can be accomplished with only a single 1 A330 MRTT.

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