Defense experts take a dim view of the reported move by India to purchase six Airbus mid-air refuelers from France, dubbing the exercise a “waste of money”. The aircraft was used to conduct mid-air refueling of the Indian Rafales whilst on their journey to the country.
Hindustan Times has reported that the Indian Air Force (IAF) will be leasing the Airbus A330 MRTT (Multi-Role Tanker Transport) from France, which is an aerial refueling tanker, and which the IAF has been eyeing for the past decade. A330 had been selected twice for its requirements – replacing/complementing the older Russian-origin Il-78 mid-air refuelers currently in service, equipped with Israeli fuel-transfer system.
According to sources, concerns over the Il-78MKI’s serviceability emerged soon after induction in 2003, and by 2006-2007, the Indian Air Force started looking around for a replacement, with the IL-78 and A-330 MRTT the only contenders.
Sources from South Block have told Hindustan Times that the IAF wanted to get an Airbus 330 MRTT on wet lease from a British company, while the French proposal talks about selling six of such second-hand aircraft (which have done 5-7 years of service) for a much-reduced rate with a 30-year lifespan certification.
Abhijit Iyer-Mitra, a senior fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi, told The EurAsian Times, “It’s a complete waste of money in my opinion.” India can’t do the kind of long-range power projection with an A330 the way America does, he maintained.
“The problem is, like all things, our air force, they have no idea of economics. So, the amount they budget for and the amount that it ends up being is much-much higher.
An Ilyushin 76 will cost you about $ 80-90 million, while an Airbus refueller will cost you upwards of $200 million a plane – and much more, if you go in for the full nuclear-proofing package,” he said.
He added that with that price range, it was not a good decision to add a capability that India hardly needs.
However, the Indian Air Force maintains that it needs new mid-air refuelers, which are critical for the service’s future ambitions.
For instance, the Su-30MKIs which are considered the backbone of the air force, cannot carry external fuel tanks (due to their already huge internal fuel capacity), and require mid-air refueling to conduct operations at longer ranges, like in the recent tests when a Su-30MKI took off from an airbase in Punjab carrying BrahMos missile, refueled mid-air, and struck a target in the Bay of Bengal.
This is not the case with just the Flankers, this capability is a great strategic addition for the IAF’s (and Navy’s) Fulcrums, Tejas, Jaguars, Mirage-2000s, Rafales, and other aircraft too.
Iyer-Mitra said the Russian Ilyushin-76 too is already 45-years old, “and the problem with it is it is not optimized for fuel.. Ilyushin is a very inefficient aircraft, it can only take about 40 tons of fuel. So, if you look at a Sukhoi, for example, it can normally take upwards of about 7 tons of fuel, and if there are five planes, your entire fuel is over”.
He said the role of a fueler is to go along with the fighters up to about a thousand kilometers, spend two hours circling that area and then come back. “And the Ilyushin just can’t do that very well, I mean when you are flying an Ilyushin you realize it, it’s a very inefficient plane, it takes a very very long time to reach cruise altitude and things like that.”
“For America to have refuellers, it is very good. In India, you are not really using refuellers that much, the basic needs are taken care of with the existing inventory.
The problem with our air force is we do a lot of cut-copy-paste. America is doing it, France is doing it, Australia is doing it, therefore, India should also do it. That’s not the way things work. America and France do a full replacement of their fleet, we don’t,” he adds.
However, Air Marshal Anil Chopra (retired), a former fighter pilot while talking to the EurAsian Times, maintains that India has been looking for these refuellers for a long time and two attempts had been made by the IAF, but they were unsuccessful. India does have the requirement, he said.
“There have been serviceability and maintenance issues with some Russian fleets, including the Ilyushin-76. But this exercise is independent, we always wanted more refuellers, not because the serviceability is low. It is because we need more numbers,” Chopra said.
“The requirements of refueling are there for a country of India’s size, if you want to have some regional range, you must have the capability for refueling. That is a capability every major country has to have. All air forces require to have their own regional influence.
The Chinese will have 50 air-refuellers, the IAF at least deserves a sufficient number of such aircraft. If they are making more and more refuellers, then we must build our capacities too.”
Airbus says that an MRTT loitering for four hours at 1,150 miles from take-off can offload 110,000 pounds of fuel. This means that, theoretically, it could refuel about 15 single-engine aircraft such as an F-16, which holds about 7,000 pounds.