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India’s HAL to convert civil aircraft to MMTT Air Refueller for the IAF with Israeli IAI help

LCA Mid Air Refueling by Il-78MKI tanker aircraft
LCA Mid Air Refueling by Il-78MKI tanker aircraft

India’s defense sector plane maker, Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), has inked an MoU with the Israeli Aviation Industries (IAI) to convert ‘Civil (Passenger) aircraft to Multi Mission Tanker Transport (MMTT) aircraft in India’.

“HAL will convert pre-owned Civil (Passenger) aircraft into air refuelling aircraft with cargo and transport capabilities,” says the HAL release.

R. Madhavan, CMD, HAL, said, “MMTT conversion business is one of the strategic diversification avenues identified by HAL.”

Boaz Levy, President of IAI and CEO, said the company would “bring our best value MMTT solution in India while utilizing local resources to manufacture and market the platform. By collaborating with HAL and bringing conversion directly to India.”

Indian Air Force tanker woes

Over the past decade and a half, the Indian Air Force (IAF) has made two attempts to acquire tanker aircraft. The IAF was close to signing the deal twice but was cancelled due to the high cost of the purchase. 

Currently, the Indian Air Force has 6 Russian-made Il-78MKI tanker aircraft, the support of which is fraught with several problems. The IL-78M FRA is operated by IAF’s No 78 Mid Air Refueling Squadron (MARS).

As per the Indian audit agency CAG (Comptroller and Auditor General), the IAF had six IL-78 aircraft procured during 2003-04, used primarily for air to air refuelling. The maximum payload of IL-78 aircraft is 155 tons with an AUW of 210 tons. As per CAG, the serviceability level of IL-78 desired by IAF is 70 per cent, but the audit found that the serviceability of IL-78 during 2010-11 and 2015-16, on average, was only 49 per cent cent.

Another issue was the onboard electronic equipment of the Russian tanker dates back to 1985. As a result, Indian Il-78 tanker aircraft are “not allowed to operate in international air corridors.

In March 2019, Russia signed a contract to overhaul and partial modernization of six Il-78MKI tanker aircraft. Under the terms of the agreement, which was estimated at $80 million, Russian specialists would replace all engines and extend the operational life of the machines.

The IAF IL-78 MKI tankers have aged and have to be replaced.

Indian attempts to buy Tankers

The Indian Air Force announced a tender for the supply of tanker aircraft in September 2010. Initially, only Rosoboronexport applied for participation in the competition. Airbus decided to join the tender at the end of January 2011. The competition was the second in a row; the first was announced in 2009. Il-78MK and A330MRTT took part in it. The Indian military preferred the European aircraft, but the Indian Ministry of Finance blocked the purchase, deeming the cost of Airbus tankers too high.

By January 2012, the IAF had tested the Airbus A330MRTT and Il-78MK refuelling aircraft participating in the tender. During the tanker aircraft tests, ground checks of tankers were carried out and takeoff and landing at a high-altitude airfield in Leh, Jammu and Kashmir. This airfield is located at 3.3 thousand meters above sea level. In flight, A330MRTT and Il-78MK refuelled Su-30MKI and Sepecat Jaguar fighters. But, in 2016, the final purchase was not made due to high costs.

In 2018, India invited three foreign tanker aircraft manufacturers to tender. The tender had the details of the requirement. New Delhi wanted the ability to refuel aircraft with two types of aviation fuel at altitudes up to 6 thousand meters; the possibility of taking off from the runways at an altitude of 2743 m; a flight range of 2778 km. Russia had offered Il-78M-90 type, the newer tankers which were being offered to the Russian Aerospace Forces. In the tender, the IAF has an option of use of pre-owned aircraft. To address this, IAI offered FRA based on a B767-300ER commercial aircraft. IAI offers its own refuelling system as seen on Colombian Air Force 767-2J6ER Jupiter. 

In 2020, the Indian government unveiled a new defense acquisition policy draft that allowed the armed forces to use leasing to reduce the costs associated with acquiring weapons and military equipment. Leasing seemed to be a good option to fill the gap in combat capabilities. But so far, India has leased only UAVs. The Indian Air Force is formulating its requirements for the lease of Tankers.

It is not yet known if the IAI-HAL MoU is for the 2018 tender or the lease proposal. 

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