Refueling range: Midair refueling needs of IAF

Given the emerging geopolitics wherein China and Pakistan will collude in both encircling India as well as forcing it to relinquish claims to Jammu and Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh, India will need to optimize the use of its air force fleet to be able to keep more aircraft and helicopters operationally aloft than is currently possible with the available midair refueling tankers.

Given also that the Government of India scrapped the deal signed with the French Airbus company in May 2009 for its Airbus-330 Multi-Role Tanker-Transporter (MRTT) within seven months of its finalisation because of the high cost of the aircraft India is now left with six Russian Ilyushin Il-78 tanker aircraft with its requirement of six more tankers unfulfilled because of the cancellation of the French order.

India is now faced with the possibility of a two-front war with Pakistan and China and the need to support air operations across nearly 8000 km of land frontiers with China, Nepal and Pakistan not to mention the large chunks of the north Arabian Sea if the Pakistani coastline is to be blockaded. Nepal has been included because of the possibility that China may not respect its neutrality in times of hostility with India.

Managing fleet

What India needs to do immediately is to buy at least a dozen more Ilyushin tankers to retain commonality in fleet structure and maintain standby tanker capacity to cater to the five separate fronts that the Chinese can open against India- Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, the UP-Himachal border, Ladakh and Jammu and Kashmir-and the four that Pakistan can in Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab, Rajasthan and the north Arabian Sea.

With at least nine fully active air spaces India will need more than 18 tankers for rotational deployment to maintain full fighter employment during a two-front war.

It needs to be remembered that air power will play a more important part than it did in Kargil given that the road infrastructure is inadequate to deploy enough land-based artillery (also in short supply) to create credible kill zones to stop Chinese and Pakistani penetration into Indian territory.

Given this scenario one could argue that by scrapping the Airbus deal India has once again shot itself in the foot because the cost of buying additional tankers from Uzbekistan could be more than the total cost of the French fleet.

To this could be added the factoid that the Airbus can refuel an Indian fighter aircraft faster than the time taken by the Ilyushins and thus be able to refuel more aircraft and keep them aloft. These Uzbekistan-built planes are fitted with Israeli fuel transfer systems and can refuel 6-8 SU-30 in one mission

However, it is not all that cut and dried as it sounds. If there are nine active air spaces requiring different degrees of commitment of fighters per sector the requirement for tankers will outpace the available fleet even if the Airbus tankers are inducted.

Also, not all of the Indian Air Force fleet is equipped for aerial refueling though the mainstays like the Sukhois, Mirage-2000 and Jaguar are. Refueling capability is being included in the MiG series of aircraft but both the ground attack and the air defence types to which multi-role equipment is being included will be available only when upgradation is completed.

It appears (by the absence of a refueling probe on the first squadron) the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft Tejas is crippled to that extent.   

One solution to this dilemma could be that India converts the HS-748 Avro transport aircraft to air-refueling role by the addition of fuel tanks and fuel transfer mechanisms from Israel.

It can delay the decommissioning process till alternative arrangements are made for acquisition of sufficient dedicated refuelers to fulfill not just the land warfare requirements but also the much larger requirement for midair range enhancement of maritime strike aircraft both carrier-borne and land-based.

That will need to be able to reach the whole of the Indian Ocean littoral from east to west if India is to retain the advantage of its peninsular geography in the face of increasing Chinese capability of power projection in the region.

India should have assessed its total requirement of refuelers in the entirety of the likely threats that will develop over the next fifty years. That has clearly not been done and this nation has been made hostage to foreigners from the word Go.

A great deal of a nation’s Comprehensive Power Capability depends on definitive assessment of its airpower requirements. That only 12 air refuelers will serve the national purpose in the face of palpable two-front war combined with the use of irregular armed forces for infiltration and land-grab a la Kargil is a travesty of Perspective Planning.

Instead of a multiplicity of types of air refuelers India (or any nation for that matter) requires a fleet of one type of aircraft because spare-parts and logistics train will become prohibitively expensive if the aircraft are bought from different sources or are of different types.


As for airborne refueling per se its advantages lie far beyond just range enhancement of existing fleet. By using its current strength of pilots to their limits of endurance the nation would easily scale the hurdle of paucity of pilots trained to fly the different types of fighter, transport and helicopters in the Indian Air Force and Indian Army fleet.

As it is we are faced with an extremely depleted fighter squadron strength and if we are not able to make full use of the existing team of pilots we would be doing the nation a grave disservice.

On those entrusted with the planning of manpower and equipment requirements over the past decade lies the onus of rank bad management of national resources. Over the past decade there has been no paucity of funds for military modernization as is evident from the amount of money returned unspent in the annual budget for the Ministry of Defence.

The cancellation of the Airbus 330 Multi-Role Tanker-Transporter (MRTT) contract proves the point. In many ways air refueling gives to the weapons platform a new lease of life.

Take for example the case of the Sukhois. With a range of 5000 km airborne refueling over the Himalayas can extend its range to about 8,000 km which brings it within reach of the Chinese capital Beijing and much of the industrial belt that lies along the Pacific seaboard not to mention the several Military Districts that are situated around the Tibetan plateau with their military reserves directed towards India.

It is a capability that needs to be nurtured and husbanded with total focused attention to every detail.

Technically India needs to carefully evaluate the probe and drogue (probe of the receiver aircraft and the drogue line attached to the tanker aircraft) and the newer refueling boom because the former allows for three aircraft to be refueled simultaneously whereas only one can be handled by the boom arrangement albeit at a faster rate of transfer.

But drogue can do multiple jobs at a time but unsafe whereas boom is stable and proven but limited capacity.

Also because the former system makes it possible to also refuel helicopters in flight which for India is an absolute necessity because helicopters like the world’s biggest MI-26 and the MI-17s are crucial links in air-bridges that support Indian troop deployment on the forward edges of the Himalayas against both China and Pakistan.

Creating airborne refueling capability for helicopters would enhance the Indian Army’s ability to air-deliver the 105 mm Indian Field Gun-howitzer to areas where they will be most effective without being dependent on road transportation.

Coupled with the gadget developed by the State-owned Ordnance Factory Board for centreline lifting of the Indian Field Gun, the weapon can be deployed faster at higher altitudes of the helicopter’s flight envelope.

Helicopter aerial refueling is more dicey than the straightforward refueling of fixed wing aircraft. For one, the drogue from the tanker has to avoid the whirling rotors and the probe from the helicopter has to be about a meter long so that it can connect with the drogue without entanglement. If perfected this technology is worth its weight in gold given the terrain difficulties of the Himalayas.

Now that the Chinese aircraft carrier has become a reality India will have to strengthen its maritime strike capability to be able to stop it south of Indonesia before it can pose a major threat to the Indian offshore islands as well as the mainland.

Airborne refueling will increase the operational capacity of both the land-based and maritime strike aircraft to make for air dominance that the Chinese carrier is intended to curtail.