Indian Air Force Revives Bid for Six Mid-Air Refuellers

Indian Air Force

New Delhi: Having failed to acquire mid-air refuellers after two attempts in the last two decades, media reports said that the Indian Air Force (IAF) is once again preparing to restart the process of acquiring six mid-air refuellers. According to the reports, the request for proposal (RFP) to purchase six mid-air refuelling aircraft, is expected to be issued within the next six months.

This marks the IAF’s third effort since 2007 to procure these tankers, with two prior tenders being discontinued due to pricing disputes. In both of the earlier attempts, the Airbus A330 multi-role tanker transport (MRTT) was chosen by the IAF instead of the Ilyushin Il-78 MKI. However, in both instances, the process was halted due to budgetary constraints.

However, according to a report, this time the IAF aims to buy six ‘pre-owned’ or ‘used’ aircraft, which can subsequently be converted into mid-air refuellers. These aircrafts are intended to serve for 25 to 30 years.

“Several global companies will phase out their older aircraft models in the coming three to four years as they transition to advanced aircraft with new engines. There will be a sufficient number of pre-owned aircraft available in the market that can be transformed into tankers,” the report said.

The IAF is actively seeking an Indian maintenance partner for the tankers. Apart from these six refuellers, IAF is also looking to lease another mid-air refueller for training purposes, and a process regarding this has already been initiated.

Once integrated into service, the refuellers will fill a critical capability gap within the IAF’s inventory. Serving as a vital strategic asset and force multiplier, these tankers will extend the airborne endurance of fighter aircraft.

“The deliveries of the tankers might take around two to three years to commence. Meanwhile, the leased tanker will be utilised for immediate training requirements of the force,” officials stated, adding that it (the leased aircraft) cannot, however, be deployed for operational purposes.

Presently, the IAF operates a fleet of six Russian IIyushin-78 tankers procured in 2003-04. They provides limited refuelling support to the Navy’s MiG-29K fighter jets, as well. However, only three to four of them are typically operational at any given time.

Maintenance and serviceability concerns were highlighted in an August 2017 report by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), which evaluated their operations from 2010 to 2016. The tankers were purchased at Rs 132 crore per aircraft in 2003-2004.