By Sri Krishna
With the arrival of the five Rafale aircraft from France on July 29, it has indeed given rise to the imperative need for the latest aerial refueling aircraft for Indian Air Force which has for the last 14 years been unsuccessfully trying to acquire a new generation flight refueling aircraft. The Rafale underwent midair refueling over the Mediterranean Sea with the help of the French Air Force Airbus A330 Multirole Tanker Transports (MRTT) aircraft.
The need for IAF having a new refueling aircraft becomes all the more important in the light of China’s aircraft carrier-based J-15 fighter jets becoming capable of conducting nighttime buddy refueling, one of the most challenging tactical moves by carrier-borne fighter jets, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) navy revealed after recent successful exercises.
Nighttime buddy refueling operations can significantly boost aircraft carriers’ round-the-clock combat capabilities; as such operations extend their combat range and enable more firepower.
For the first time, J-15 fighter jets affiliated with the PLA navy recently completed a set of aerial buddy refueling exercises at night, it has announced.
This marked a new breakthrough in the all-weather, long-range combat capability of China’s carrier-based aircraft forces, PLA navy said.
The term “buddy refueling” means both the feeding aircraft and receiving aircraft are of the same type of warplane, and in this case, it means a J-15 equipped with a refueling pod refuels other J-15s.
The PLA navy has previously grasped the techniques of buddy refueling in the day, a report on the China Central Television (CCTV) said.
Zhang Ye, a PLA navy aircraft carrier aviation officer, said on CCTV that crew members have accomplished nighttime buddy refueling exercises with multiple batches of aircraft when there was no previous experience to refer to.
So, surely it becomes all the more necessary for the IAF to have the latest refueling aircraft in its armoury considering the increasing border tensions with China and Pakistan.
The IAF had made multiple attempts to acquire the A330 MRTT before having to shelve its plans due to budgetary constraints. The IAF has also been looking at the Boeing 767 based KC-46A Pegasus as an alternative.
Meanwhile, there are reports that Boeing must pay another US$151 million out of its own pocket for the KC-46 programme, but this time the charge isn’t associated with technical problems that have plagued the tanker’s development.
The company announced its second-quarter earnings on July 29 stating the KC-46 charge was “primarily driven by additional fixed-cost allocation resulting from lower commercial airplane production volume due to COVID-19.”
As Boeing’s commercial plane production has slowed down, it’s costing more to produce the KC-46, a derivative of the Boeing 767 airliner that is manufactured on the 767 production line in Everett, Washington, and converted into a military tanker.
Greg Smith, Boeing’s chief financial officer, said with the ramp down of production on some commercial airliners, certain fixed costs have been transferred to other programs.
KC-46 delivery to Seymour Johnson was delayed after debris was found in fuel tank and this is the latest in a series of debris-related problems that has held up Boeing’s delivery of the Air Force’s newest tanker.
What could give a boost to speed up acquisition of the tanker for IAF is the recent leasing clause that has been incorporated in the Defence Procurement Procedure 2020 and the IAF is for the first time considering leasing aerial refueling tanker aircraft since when it last floated a request for information (RFI) in 2018 as part of its third attempt to acquire six such tankers did not move forward.
IAF currently has a fleet of six Russian Il-78M FRAs at its disposal for its aerial refuelling needs but these are plagued by maintenance problems and there is need for six more for the IAF.
According to reports, the IAF made two attempts to buy tankers during the last decade-and-a-half. On both occasions, it was close to signing the deal but things fell through because of the high acquisition cost and it is now felt that leasing is a good option.
“We are finalising the requirements for the proposed lease of tankers to boost our in-flight refuelling capabilities. We are looking at aspects such as whether we should opt for a wet [the lessor provides crew and maintenance] or dry lease. Leasing will be a better option as our budget is under pressure,” said those in the know.
Leasing is permitted in two categories—where the lessor is an Indian entity and is the owner of the assets and where the lessor is a global entity. The provision of leasing in the draft DPP governs military equipment that is not deployed during the war—transport fleets, trainers and simulators.
“Tankers are a force multiplier and the IAF has been pressing for more inductions for the past 15 years. Finance has been and still is the issue. Leasing is a good option. It will save the flying hours of the IAF-owned aerial refuelling tanker aircraft for wars, with the leased ones doing the very substantial task of training and long ferries for exercises abroad,” said Air Vice Marshal (Retd.) Manmohan Bahadur, additional director general, Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS).
American (Boeing KC-46A), Russian (Il-78) and European (A330 MRTT) military contractors were expecting the IAF to float a global tender for more tankers. Israel Aerospace Industries’ Bedek Aviation Group was also looking at participating in the contest with its Boeing 767-200 multi-mission tanker transport—a conversion of the Boeing aircraft by Bedek Aviation.
While the Indian Air Force kickstarts a fresh hunt for flight refueling aircraft, India’s US$3.1 billion indigenous airborne warning and control system (AWACS) program has also gathered steam. In an interesting development, the IAF has officially asked the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) to move forward in such a way that the resulting AWACS jets are fitted to play the additional role of mid-air refueling tankers.
The IAF directive throws up concerns over cost and time overruns in a priority project, though the DRDO exudes its traditional optimism on the demand.
“While we are developing the complete AWACS system based on the Airbus A330 platform, the IAF has asked us to add the refueling capability. This could be for escort aircraft or other situations where such dual role functionality could be critical. We are in discussions with Airbus regarding this,” then DRDO Chief S. Christopher had said.
While India’s quest for eight flight refueling aircraft is all set to be a clash between the Airbus A330 MRTT and the Boeing KC-46, the DRDO’s indigenous AWACS platform will be Airbus A330, a selection made four years ago. In 2015, the Indian government officially approved the program and sanctioned finances to the tune of over US$800 million for costs that would include modifications and the first two A330 aircraft.
With work now in progress to develop India’s AWACS with tanker functionality, it remains unclear whether this could have an impact on the soon to be floated tanker contest between Airbus and Boeing. Airbus, which emerged a winner in two aborted contests for IAF tankers (Boeing didn’t compete in those first two contests) appears to have something of an advantage with the Indian AWACS program choosing to fold in a tanker role into its mission profile.
According to a report, the global aerial refueling systems market offers a healthy growth opportunity in the entire ecosystem and is likely to reach an estimated value of US$671.9 million in 2024.
The increasing demand for tanker aircraft, owing to rising defence budgets in the developing economies and expected replacement of old tanker aircraft fleet of KC-135 in the USA, emergence of multirole aircraft tankers; increasing demand for long-run military jets for special purpose missions, and rising tanker fleet size are the major growth drivers for the aerial refueling systems market.
The global aerial refueling systems market size was valued at US$550 million in 2019 and is anticipated to grow at a CAGR of 4.5 per cent during the forecast period. QMI comes with an in-depth analysis and prediction report on the Aerial Refueling Systems Market. New research has been carried out across many regions and sectors.
It offers a wide-ranging survey report of market players, product type and application level from all key regions like North America, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Asia Pacific, West Asia, and rest of the world. This study report shows growth in revenues of aerial refueling systems market in US$ from the 2020-2028 forecast periods.
-The writer is a senior journalist and media consultant. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda