Airbus A-330 Multi Role Tanker Transport aircraft refueling a fighter jet

The IL-76s and IL-78s had no avionics upgrade as far as January, 2016

NEW DELHI: The Indian Air Force (IAF) today started the process of procuring six flight refueller aircraft (FRA). This is the IAF's third attempt over the last seven years in procuring such aircraft for expanding the operational reach of its combat fleet. Currently, this requirement is being met by its IL-78s which have been facing maintenance issues, hampering the air to air refuelling capability. 

The IAF today issued a Request for Information (RFI) for procuring "six FRAs along with its associated equipment for the IAF to meet air to air refueling requirements", according to the RFI's description. 

Air to air refueling or also known aerial refueling is the process of transferring aviation fuel from a tanker aircraft to the receiving aircraft during flight. This allows the receiving aircraft to remain airborne longer, thereby extending its range. This process also allows a fighter jet to take off with complete combat payload and refuel immediately. In addition, for exploiting the full potential of the aircraft to switch from one theatre to another this requirement becomes essential.

Sources explained that the FRA being looked at by the IAF will be a twin-crew aircraft. "It can also be second hand aircraft, provided they have 40 years of life and adequate flying hours," explained sources.

The previous two contests failed due to price issues, making this the third attempt at getting these aircraft, according to reports. Airbus A330 multi-role tanker transport (MRTT) and Ilyushin's Il-78 had competed in the past two tenders.

The IAF currently has six IL-78 aircraft which were procured during 2003-2004 at a cost of about Rs 132 crore per aircraft, which are used primarily for air to air refuelling. However, these IL-78s have several issues, according to a Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report, tabled in Parliament last year. The report detailed an audit on the IAF's IL fleet, covering the period from 2010 to 2016.

According to the report, due to non-availability of hangars, the air assets remained in the open, which adversely affected their serviceability and life. Servicing and maintenance activities also had to be carried out in the open tarmac area, which resulted in delays due to weather conditions. The audit also found poor availability of spares, which affected the serviceability of the aircraft.

The report also stated that the serviceability of the aerial refuelling pods (ARPs) was poor, due to the limitation in repair of pods at the air base and poor maintenance support from the Original Equipment Manufacturer. The ARPs are hoses which connect the IL-78 fuel tank with the fuel tank of the receiving aircraft.

The IL-76s and IL-78s had no avionics upgrade as far as January, 2016, and the aircraft continued to fly with 1985 vintage avionics.

Furthermore, the report states that the IL-78s were due for overhaul in 2018-19 and during this process it is proposed to upgrade their engines, which will enable them to take off from shorter runways. However, the report said that the upgradation will take several years, meanwhile air to air capability of the IL-78 fleet will remain constrained.

The report concluded that, "Air to Air refuelling is a crucial capability both during combat as well as peacetime operations. IL-78 aircraft are dedicated for this purpose. However, due to inadequate infrastructure and support facilities the air to air refuelling capability was hampered."