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19 Dec 2017

#DefenseDiaries: How the IAF is losing its mid-air refueling capability

The Indian Air Force's (IAF) six Ilyushin IL-78 aircraft are used to refuel fighter jets in mid-air.

The IL-78 acts as crucial force multipliers as it helps boost the range of fighter jets during operations.

However, the IL-78s will be going for an overhaul next year, leaving the IAF without the mid-air refueling capability.

Meanwhile, the IAF's attempts at buying new tankers have failed.

In context

IAF's mid-air refuelling capability is under threat


What is the IL-78?

The IL-78 is a variant of the Ilyushin IL-76 transport aircraft.

In 2002, the Indian government signed a contract for six IL-78MKI aircraft, dubbed Mid-Air Refuelling Squadron (MARS), which featured Israeli fuel-transferring systems.

The Indian IL-78s are capable of refueling around six to eight Sukhoi-30MKI fighter jets in a single operation.

The tankers can refuel three fighter jets at the same time.


IAF's IL-78s have been besieged by reliability issues

A Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report has raised questions about the IAF's fleet of IL-78s.

The report found that at any point in time, less than half the fleet was mission-ready.

The aircraft's aerial refueling pods are prone to frequent failures and have insufficient repair facilities and maintenance support.

The IAF lacks sufficient hydrant refueling systems to efficiently and quickly fill-up the IL-78s.

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IAF runways not long enough to handle IL-78 operations

The CAG report notes that the IL-78s require a runway length of 11,480-feet to 15,022-feet to take off while carrying a full fuel load.

However, the 10 airfields meant for tanker operations have runways shorter than 10,000-feet.

The upcoming refits would involve upgrading the IL-78s engines. This would allow the tanker to take-off from shorter runways.

The IAF lacks enough hangars for the aircraft.


High cost stopping IAF from buying six additional tankers

Over the past 10 years, the IAF has launched two tenders for the acquisition of six additional mid-air refueling tankers.

In both tenders, the European Airbus 330-MRTT edged out the IL-78.

The purchase, which could cost nearly Rs. 13,000crore, was quashed after the finance ministry raised objections over the pricing.

If procured, the aircraft will be used along the eastern sector against Chinese threats.

IAF expected to launch another tender next year

Another tender to purchase six mid-air refueling tanks is expected to be floated next year. Besides the Europe's Airbus and Russia's Ilyushin, the US' Boeing and Israel Aerospace Industries' Bedek Aviation Group are expected to participate in the tender.

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