IAF’s Quest for Flight Re­fu­eller

While the process for se­lec­tion of a new FRA is un­der­way, there is trep­i­da­tion amongst IAF cir­cles about the bud­getary de­pri­va­tion af­flict­ing the de­fence ser­vices

SP's Aviation - - Table of Contents - By GROUP CAP­TAIN A.K. SACHDEV (RETD)

Ex­per­i­men­ta­tion in air-to-air re­fu­el­ing com­menced in 1920s. Con­sid­er­ing that the first flight it­self took place in 1903, the lure of air-to-air re­fu­el­ing ap­pears to have man­i­fested it­self rather early, long be­fore the term ‘force mul­ti­plier’ ap­peared with its multi-faceted con­no­ta­tions in the mil­i­tary con­text. To­day, air-to-air re­fu­el­ing is used by those na­tions that can af­ford it. Its ad­van­tages are truly force mul­ti­ply­ing: the range and en­durance of aerial plat­forms can be in­creased con­sid­er­ably, com­bat air­craft can en­hance their com­bat stay­ing power or reach tar­gets be­yond their nor­mal ra­dius of ac­tion and, in case of hot-and-high air­field op­er­a­tion, where their weapon pay­load is oth­er­wise re­stricted, still carry a full pay­load at the cost of equiv­a­lent fuel weight which is then rec­om­pensed through air-to-air re­fu­el­ing. In ad­di­tion, air-to-air re­fu­elling en­ables scarce com­bat air­craft to be moved from one the­atre to an­other rapidly. The In­dian flir­ta­tion with air-to-air re­fu­el­ing is around a decade and a half old, but its ex­pe­ri­ence has been less than happy. This ar­ti­cle takes a brief look at the past and then ex­am­ines the cur­rent ini­tia­tive to ac­quire new tankers.


In­dia signed up for six Ilyushin IL-78MKI flight re­fu­el­ing air­craft (FRA) from Uzbek­istan in 2002. The Rus­sian air­frame, a vari­a­tion of IL-76 with 1985 vin­tage avion­ics, and with Is­raeli fuel trans­fer sys­tem was in­ducted into 78 Squadron of the In­dian Air Force (IAF) in March 2003. The squadron was named Mid Air Re­fu­el­ing Squadron (MARS). This FRA, six of which are in cur­rent ser­vice, can re­fuel three jets si­mul­ta­ne­ously and, in one op­er­a­tion, can re­fuel 6-8 Su-30MKIs. It can also re­fuel the Jaguar and the Mi­rage 2000. This ca­pa­bil­ity has been prac­ticed ex­ten­sively and demon­strated while mov­ing for par­tic­i­pa­tion in in­ter­na­tional ex­er­cises. The lat­est air­craft to be re­fu­elled by the IL-78 is the Ne­tra Air­borne Early Warn­ing and Con­trol (AEW&C) air­craft. When the IL-78 was pro­cured, the pro­jected ser­vice-

abil­ity fig­ure was 70 per cent. How­ever, the ac­tual ser­vice­abil­ity has been un­der 50 per cent. There have also been prob­lems of spares and main­te­nance, es­pe­cially with the re­fu­elling pods due to fre­quent fail­ures, in­ad­e­quate re­pair fa­cil­i­ties and poor main­te­nance sup­port from the orig­i­nal equip­ment man­u­fac­turer (OEM). A Comptroller and Au­di­tor Gen­eral (CAG) re­port of July 2017 found other is­sues with the IL-78. The short-fall of main­te­nance hangars was high­lighted and so was the fact that while the air­craft re­quires a run­way length of 11,480 feet to 15,022 feet to carry full fuel load, no ef­fort had been made to make such run­ways although the IAF had iden­ti­fied ten air­fields for the pur­pose. Pos­si­bly, the run­way ex­ten­sion has been shelved due to the fact that the air­craft are due for a ma­jor overhaul in 2018-19, dur­ing which the en­gine is to be up­graded ob­vi­at­ing the need for the longer run­way. There is also the is­sue of short­age of hy­drant re­fu­elling sys­tems to tank up the IL-78s quickly.


Irked by the poor re­li­a­bil­ity and ser­vice­abil­ity of the IL-78 and need­ing more than six FRAs to meet its re­quire­ments of a two-front war, the IAF started look­ing at a new pro­cure­ment within three years of in­duct­ing the IL-78. The first Re­quest for Pro­posal (RFP) was floated in 2006 and the Air­bus A330 Multi Role Tanker Trans­port (MRTT) was the fi­nal­ist, but in 2010, the RFP was can­celled re­port­edly be­cause the Min­istry of Fi­nance ex­pressed “reser­va­tions re­lat­ing to the high cost”. In 2010, an­other RFP was is­sued to which Rus­sian Ilyushin, Ukrainian Antonov and Euro­pean Air­bus re­sponded. In Jan­uary 2013, once again the A330 MRTT was de­clared as the plat­form of choice. In­cred­i­bly, the process was ter­mi­nated once again cit­ing high cost.

In Jan­uary 2018, the IAF ini­ti­ated its third en­deav­our to aug­ment its ex­ist­ing fleet of aerial tankers through a Re­quest for In­for­ma­tion (RFI) for procur­ing “six FRAs along with its as­so­ci­ated equip­ment for the IAF to meet air-to-air re­fu­elling re­quire­ments.” The re­quire­ment is for a twinengine, two-man crew air­craft with at least 40 years of tech­ni­cal life. Th­ese re­quire­ments seem to be fo­cussed on keep­ing fuel and main­te­nance costs low so as to pre­vent a third damp squib ex­pe­ri­ence. How­ever, as a re­sult, the IL-78 be­ing a four en­gine FRA, has been pre­cluded from the com­pe­ti­tion de­spite an of­fer of six new gen­er­a­tion Il-78M-90 tanker air­craft in ad­di­tion to up­grad­ing the six ex­ist­ing Il-78Ms to the dash-90 stan­dard, new avion­ics, ad­di­tional fuel ca­pac­ity and re­plac­ing the D-30 KP en­gines with new PS-90s. The of­fer also in­cludes con­ver­sion of one or two Il-76 trans­port air­craft into FRA. The last date for re­spond­ing to the RFI was March 30, 2018. It is ex­pected that the RFP will in­clude a 30 per cent Off­set clause and con­sider a 30 year life-cy­cle cost (LCC) as a fac­tor. The de­ci­sion for a twin-en­gine FRA is cost-driven, but has lower op­er­a­tional re­li­a­bil­ity as a fourengine FRA could con­tinue its mis­sion with a sin­gle en­gine fail­ure while a twin-en­gine one would have to abort mis­sion.


In the pre­vi­ous se­lec­tion processes, the only con­tenders were the IL-78 and the A330 MRTT. With the IL-78 out of the reck­on­ing, the A330 MRTT re­mains a for­mi­da­ble con­tender, but there are at least two other chal­lengers. The first is the Boe­ing KC-46 Pe­ga­sus which did not par­tic­i­pate in the pre­vi­ous selections as it was not ready. In­deed, it is still un­der de­vel­op­ment and is ex­pected to en­ter ser­vice with US Air Force (USAF) only later this year. The KC-46A is based on Boe­ing 767-200 and Boe­ing is com­mit­ted to build­ing 179 for the USAF by 2027. It can also be re­con­fig­ured to cargo and aeromed­i­cal evac­u­a­tion roles and is equipped with ar­mour in the cock­pit for crew pro­tec­tion, In­fra Red (IR) coun­ter­mea­sures to de­ceive mis­siles and elec­tro­mag­netic pulse (EMP) hard­en­ing to op­er­ate in hos­tile en­vi­rons. Ja­pan is the first in­terna-

In Jan­uary 2018, the IAF ini­ti­ated its third en­deav­our to aug­ment its ex­ist­ing fleet of aerial tankers through a Re­quest for In­for­ma­tion for six FRAs for the IAF

tional cus­tomer for the KC-46A but, in­ter­est­ingly, South Korea, a close trade and strate­gic part­ner for US, has favoured the A330 MRTT over the KC-46A. The air­craft was first shown to IAF at Seat­tle in 2016 and its ca­pa­bil­i­ties are known.

The other likely con­tender is Is­rael Aero­space In­dus­tries’ Bedek Avi­a­tion Group with its Boe­ing 767-300ER multi-mis­sion tanker trans­port (MMTT) with a mod­ern glass cock­pit, new en­gines, un­der-wing hose-and-drogue re­fu­elling pods and a boom cus­tomised for each cus­tomer. The air­craft can be re­con­fig­ured to carry 200 troops or 60 tonnes of cargo. Bedek claims that the cost will be 15-20 per cent lower than an al­ter­na­tive with match­ing per­for­mance and op­er­a­tional ca­pa­bil­i­ties.

Last year, Air­bus made a clever of­fer as a pack­age deal for six A330 MRTT that in­cluded an air-to-air re­fu­el­ing kit for the 56 C295 air­craft that In­dia is procur­ing from Air­bus. The of­fer holds only mild in­ter­est as a C295 can­not re­fuel com­bat air­craft, but would be re­stricted to re­fu­el­ing he­li­copters and some other slower air­craft. There is some lure in that of­fer as even the fig­ure of 12 (six ex­ist­ing plus six new) FRAs would be in­ad­e­quate for meet­ing the tasks of IAF and the In­dian Navy. Even oth­er­wise the A330 MRTT holds an edge over the KC46A ac­cord­ing to a re­port by In­dian De­fence Re­search Wing (see ta­ble above).

As can be seen, the A330 MRTT can fly 2,500 nau­ti­cal miles far­ther and 7,651 feet higher than the Pe­ga­sus, be­sides hold­ing other ad­van­tages. How­ever, with its smaller size and be­cause the Boe­ing 767 costs less than the A330 MRTT, the fi­nal tip­ping fac­tor may well be the lower unit and life-cy­cle cost of the KC-46A. This is es­pe­cially so as the pre­vi­ous two RFPs have floun­dered on fi­nan­cial rocks. Boe­ing is also high­light­ing the fact that KC-46A has bet­ter com­pat­i­bil­ity than A330 MRTT to re­fuel other Boe­ing de­vel­oped plat­forms like C-17, P-8I, Chi­nook MH-47E and even Lock­heed Martin C-130J al­ready op­er­ated by IAF and In­dian Navy.

The re­cent air-to-air re­fu­elling of the Ne­tra brought to no­tice an­other ini­tia­tive by DRDO. The IAF has re­port­edly asked for the Air­borne Warn­ing and Con­trol Sys­tem (AWACS) air­craft be­ing de­vel­oped around an A330 plat­form since 2015 to have the ad­di­tional role of FRA. The wis­dom of such a de­sign is de­bat­able and the ar­gu­ments for and against will prob­a­bly be de­lib­er­ated upon in the fu­ture. Pos­si­bly, such an air­craft will lead to sub­op­ti­mal at­tain­ment of ei­ther role while meet­ing the ur­gently re­quired num­bers of both AWACS and FRA.


While the process for se­lec­tion of a new FRA is un­der­way, there is trep­i­da­tion amongst IAF cir­cles about the bud­getary de­pri­va­tion the de­fence ser­vices are af­flicted with. For 2018-19, the IAF had made a pro­jec­tion of ` 1,14,526 crore while the al­lo­ca­tion is only to the tune of ` 65,891 crore. In­deed, the IAF has re­port­edly stated its in­abil­ity to make even the tranche pay­ments for pur­chases al­ready com­mit­ted prior to this fi­nan­cial year. Thus there will re­main an in­ter­ro­ga­tion mark over the ac­tual ac­qui­si­tion even after the se­lec­tion process comes to the end of its ex­pect­edly long drawn span. As far back as 2012, Vice Chief of the Air Staff, Air Mar­shal D.C. Ku­maria, had said that all com­bat air­craft of the IAF would have air-to-air re­fu­el­ing ca­pa­bil­ity in fu­ture, clar­i­fy­ing that the de­ci­sion ap­plied to all cur­rent and fu­ture ac­qui­si­tions, whether com­bat jets, trans­port air­craft, he­li­copters or other as­sets. Con­sum­ma­tion of this lofty sen­ti­ment is pred­i­cated to a speedy cul­mi­na­tion of the just launched se­lec­tion process, hope­fully this time con­clud­ing log­i­cally into an ac­tual pur­chase of a min­i­mum of six FRAs for the IAF.




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