Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Sidelining Airbus For Boeing, Indian Air Force Finally On Track To Acquire Mid Air Refuelers To Power Its Fighter Jets

India has been on the lookout for a refueling aircraft for more than a decade now. In what could finally bring some relief to the Indian Air Force, it has now inched closer to having its own refueling aircraft which would help increase the flight time of its fighter jets.

Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) recently signed an agreement to convert Boeing 767 passenger aircraft into Multi-Mission Tanker Transports (MMTTs) to be used by the Indian Air Force. The MMTT is built on “pre-owned B767 aircraft,” according to an IAI statement.

The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed on April 6 between the two companies will cover not just passenger aircraft conversion to MMTTs, but also cargo conversion.

According to IAI, “The MMTT conversion is based on long years of accumulated know-how and experience in aircraft conversions.” Boaz Levy, president and CEO of IAI, added in a statement that the project will utilize “local [India] resources to manufacture and market the platform”.

Boeing 767 - Wikipedia
Boeing 767 – Wikipedia

Israel’s aerospace giant IAI has been adapting old airframes for this role for a very long time. The company claims to have altered dozens of aircraft for “more than 12 customers globally” for air-to-air refueling missions and is fully compliant with NATO Air-to-Air Refueling Standards.

IAI has promoted the potential to convert used aircraft into tankers by installing specialized fuel storage and transfer systems.

HAL anticipates the joint development program to deliver new capabilities and cost-effective solutions to India’s defense ecosystem. The project could help the ‘Make in India’ push, according to the company.

This becomes significant at a time when India has been aggressively pushing indigenization in defense manufacturing. It recently published its third negative arms import list to discourage defense imports and encourage local manufacturing and innovation.

Boaz Levy, President IAI and CEO, spoke about collaborating with HAL to offer the greatest value MMTT solution to India and being a part of the Make in India program in his speech on the signing of the MoU.

On the other hand, HAL CMD R Madhavan said, “This venture of MMTT conversion business which is one of the strategic diversification avenues identified by HAL.”

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Barak 8 SAM developed by India and Israel (via Twitter)

This is not the first time that India and Israel are collaborating to jointly produce a defense system. The MRSAM, or Barak 8 air defense system, is jointly developed by India and Israel and comprises modern radar, command and control systems, and mobile launchers.

Refueling Tankers

Aerial refuelers are huge transport jets designed to refuel fighters, patrol planes, bombers, and a variety of other aircraft in mid-flight. The increased range of aircraft boasts a military’s combat capability by allowing planes to attack targets further away.

The Indian Air Force received the first of six Russian-built Il-78 refueling planes in 2003. The Il-78 is a re-engineered Il-76 cargo plane from the Soviet era. However, worries about the aircraft’s serviceability arose quickly, and the Indian Air Force began seeking a successor shortly after, in 2006-2007.

Ilyushin Il-78 - Wikipedia
Ilyushin Il-78 – Wikipedia

The Indian Air Force twice put out tenders for a new aerial refueling tanker, and both times an Airbus A330 emerged as a frontrunner. However, cost concerns ultimately led to the project being shelved.

Former Air Chief Marshal R.K.S. Bhadauria revealed in his annual news conference in 2019 that an “earlier process” to pick a new aerial refueling aircraft for the Indian Air Force had been canceled, and new requests for information would be issued to possible bidders.

India was also in talks with France under a government-to-government agreement to lease one A330 multi-role tanker transport (MRTT) from the French Air Force for training reasons.

The single aircraft was to be bought through “wet-leasing,” which implied that it would have been trained and maintained by French troops.

Airbus A330 MRTT - Wikipedia
Airbus A330 MRTT – Wikipedia

However, this isn’t the first time IAI has offered India a B767 conversion either. Following India’s termination of the Airbus A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) program in June 2016, IAI told Janes that it was offering its B767-300ER-based MMTT at Aero India 2017.

IAI apparently offers two types of refueling systems for the Boeing 767: the ‘probe and drogue’ and the ‘flying boom.’ The Indian Air Force’s Il-78 uses the probe and drogue system.

The Flying Boom, on the other hand, is mostly used by aircraft designed in the United States and enables the transfer of higher volumes of fuel in less time. Only the Flying Boom can refuel massive aircraft like the Indian Navy’s P-8I maritime patrol jets and the Indian Air Force’s C-17 big transport jets.

Given the changing security dynamics in the region and the threats faced by its neighbors, an air refueling aircraft is required for undertaking longer missions. The addition of an MRTT aircraft will not only enhance the range and flight-time of these aircraft but also potentially ensure an economical alternative to purchasing an expensive refueling aircraft.

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