Mid air refueling

The Indian Air Force had last acquired six air refuelers from Russia almost a decade ago and the decision to add six more is hanging. The Indian Government has not taken any forward movement yet on the contract finalization of Airbus A330 MRTT as the next tanker fleet of IAF for fulfilling its on flight refueling requirements.

Since this is now a norm being followed by the Air Forces world over, the IAF has planned its future combat requirement on air refueling capabilities.

With China deciding to augment its tanker fleet of ten HY-6 aircraft by ordering eight Russian IL-78 tanker aircraft to enhance its combat range, Indian Air Force is in the dire need of extending the flying range of its fighter aircraft especially in the region bordering Tibet, which faces the greatest security threat in the coming years.

Airbus tanker

The MoD had announced its decision to acquire the European Airbus MRTT A330 last January. In fact, the MoD had selected the Airbus almost four years ago, but the finance ministry objected to the decision on the grounds that it was too expensive.

In 2010 the IAF had chosen the Airbus MRTT after years of trials and evaluations but felt ditched by the MoD which followed the finance ministry advice to drop the idea of acquiring the MRTT. The IAF officials had then pointed out that the MRTT was technologically far superior to IL-78 and the overall lifecycle cost of the MRTT would be far less. As the tender was refloated the Airbus once again won the bid on the basis of the cheaper life cycle cost over the Russian IL-78 tanker.

After Australia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom, India is the fifth nation to commit for the MRTT. The Airbus has got international order of a total of 28 aircraft. And India’s decision to enter into a US$ 1.5 billion contract will be a big boost to its international credibility.

Though it would have been prudent to add the same class of  tankers in its inventory because of similarity of equipments and which would have saved the IAF from investing in another maintenance facility, the IAF headquarter reportedly expressed its annoyance over the low serviceability of the Russian  tanker and problems in quick supply of spare parts.

Now the IAF would have two types of tanker inventory in its fleet, but the IAF bosses are not worried over its maintenance aspects. The Airbus had announced last January that, “The decision follows a lengthy and thorough selection process including the completion of extensive flight demonstrations in India by the A330 MRTT during which the aircraft refuelled multiple types of IAF fighters and operated from the high-altitude IAF base at Leh.”

The A330 MRTT also competed with the American Boeing besides the Russian IL-78 but the Boeing withdrew later. According to Airbus, the MRTT would come with Aerial Refueling Boom System (ARBS)-a technology which only the Boeing possessed. The ARBS system enables refueling even in adverse weather conditions and day or night, but the IL-78 reportedly lacked this capability.

The MRTT uses the stereoscopic vision and laser based-infrared lighting system - which will be compatible with the Rafale fighters which India is all set to acquire. However the MRTT would add to the range of all fighters and transport fleet in its inventory. The IAF has already decided to enable all aircraft and helicopters in its fleet for in-flight refueling, in order to enhance its combat range beyond India’s maritime area.

Operational need

With IAF intending to convert itself into an expeditionary force, the air refueler is considered a necessity. It would be worth reminding the policy makers that the US and NATO would not have been able to complete its mission in Afghanistan without the air refulers as all of its planes on Afghan mission were flown to the area after air refueling. Only because of air refuelers the Sukhoi -30 aircraft were flown to US for participating in the Red Flag exercise of the US Air Force.

The IAF has already taken a decision of far reaching significance to increase its operational reach by deciding to enable all its aircraft and helicopters for combat and support role for mid air refueling.

This was disclosed by the Vice Chief of IAF Air Marshal D C Kumaria during a seminar last year, when he said that the decision applies to all its current and future applications whether combat jets, transport aircraft, helicopters or other assets. He also revealed that aircraft with this capability only will be considered for future acquisitions.

Senior experts believe that the IAF’s plan is in accordance with the worldwide trend, as the IAF will have to plan for the next two decades.

According to Air Marshal Kumaria technology and strategic requirements have evolved over time and IAF will have to follow the international trend.  Considering the new policy of IAF to acquire  all its  future aircraft with in flight refueling facility, the current plans to induct the C-130J, Globemaster, AWACS, Rafale MMRCA, Embraer AEW&C, attack and heavy lift helicopters will demand the  significant addition of its tanker fleet as soon as possible. For an Air Force like IAF, only six air refuelers would not be sufficient to service its entire fleet.

However with probable cut in the defence spending in 2013-14 the IAF bosses are worried that the deal will once again be delayed, resulting in further increase in acquisition cost.

The four year delay has already cost India a lot, but the financial compulsions will relegate the priority of MRTT after other essentials like the MMRCA, for which the French Dassault has already negotiated and the decision which was awaited before the current regime ends its tenure. Defence sources are of the opinion that the delay in acquiring the MMRCA will also have an impact on the refueler acquisition program.

Though the A330 MRTT can also be used as a troop-transporter and accommodate about 130 stretchers for casualty evacuation, its multipurpose role as tanker and transport aircraft can only be ignored at the cost of compromising with the combat requirements of IAF.

The IAF is already facing crunch in its transport capabilities. Though new transport planes are being inducted, the air refueler would have served the dual purpose of air refueling and transport of men and material also.