India’s Fiercest Aerial Tanker War Brews


“Two Mirages zoom up from below, slowing down, then edging closer to the giant Il-78M in front of us, trailing two fuel hoses from its wings. The two jets plug into the drogue baskets, get their fuel over a few minutes, then dive and bank out of the frame. Then a single Jaguar floats up into view, plugging into a single drogue.”

Words from your correspondent’s reporter notes twelve years ago in September 2004 as he sat in the observation bay of an Il-78M flying not far from airspace over the Taj Mahal, behind another Il-78M. The two jets were performing refueling operations for the first time for a public audience, a group of defence journalists who would report on this arresting new military capability to the Indian public. The aircraft were brand new and the refueling squadron’s pilots loved their new jets.

Two years later, the IAF knew one thing with certainty: six aircraft just wouldn’t cut it. But by then, it was also clear that it didn’t want to simply go back to Russia for more aircraft, which would have seemed the logical thing to do for inventory reasons. But what began then, in 2006, was an effort that still hasn’t borne fruit a decade later, with not a single tanker added to the fleet. Two aborted contests later, India is primed for a third. And it’s going to be a very different one.

Because if third time lucky means anything at all, the third iteration of India’s bid for new aerial refueling tankers sure promises to be the most intense yet. Before it gets off the ground, Livefist breaks down the state of play:

  • It is near certain there will be a third contest. With two aborts that centered around costing issues, the Indian government may be particularly bent on bang for buck, but the IAF is clear in its requirements — it needs six more tankers. And that’s just for starters. The unstated requirement for tankers is well over 20 aircraft in the medium term. When a prospective contest will begin is unclear. With the last abort only early this year, it’s possible the fresh competition could be announced next year. The IAF currently has its budget tied up in other commitments, chiefly its brand new 36 Rafale deal.
  • Airbus, chosen as winner in the two aborted contests, comes in against a strong headwind. Recognised as an excellent and proven product with a slew of customers (most recently South Korea, which chose the A330 MRTT over Boeing’s KC-46A in June last year.), it will still need to do two things: one, offer a far more competitive package to the Indian government, especially with more competition in the fray. And two,  convince the Indian government that it was chosen twice before for a reason. It was tested extensively by the IAF and has been recognised as a solid offering, so it doesn’t need to worry overly about that. Except, it now competes not just with the Il-78M-90, but Boeing’s KC-46A Pegasus too. Airbus has defeated Boeing in direct face-off tanker competitions before, so the new field of play doesn’t immediately suggest any reason to be nervous. But the circumstances of the last dozen odd years since India first began trying to buy more tankers suggests it’ll need an even bigger game now.
  • Boeing, which sat out the first two iterations of India’s tanker bid, is now aggressively in the fray and exudes confidence owing to a variety of factors. One, arch rival Airbus couldn’t close a deal. Twice. Which means, Boeing already has the lessons it will need when it writes up its techno-commercial package, sidestepping Indian Finance Ministry and costing pitfalls that emerged not once, but twice. Two, Boeing (like Airbus) believes the KC-46A plugs right into the IAF and Navy’s existing aircraft types, certified (or in the process of being certified) to refuel  the IAF’s C-17 and Navy’s P-8Is with its modernised KC-10 boom and refueling everything else, including the IAF’s C-130Js with its drogue system.
  • While the technical comparison between the KC-46A and Airbus A330 MRTT has happened before, some of which the IAF has been unofficially privy to, both sides claim advantages over the other. Remember, unlike the Il-78M which operates only a 3 x hose-drogue system, the MRTT and Pegasus both sport the boom + 3 x hose-drogue configuration that technically allows four aircraft to refuel together. Airbus claims several advantages over the Pegasus, including fuel capacity and efficiencies. Boeing sends those claims right back with added ammo. For instance, Boeing’s Michael Koch, VP, India for Boeing Defense tells Livefist, “It is understood that the Airbus tanker cannot refuel two aircraft simultaneously from its boom and 004centre-line drogue system, something that the Pegasus can.” A slew of similar technical flashpoints are likely to be amplified as a prospective competition looms, not least cargo flexibility and multirole capabilities. Boeing is also likely to play up what it believes to be a game-changer: its new remote refueling operator station that is fed from an array of cameras at the rear, and with which boom operators now sport 3D glasses for a near real experience of boom operations day or night. Ultimately though, both Boeing and Airbus know that costing will be paramount, since the IAF is unlikely to hover around capability discrepancies on two clearly formidable platforms.
  • Finally, Russia’s pitch is a comprehensive one that involves the IAF’s six existing Il-78Ms. Rosoboronexport proposes a comprehensive contract that will include the supply of six new generation & build Il-78M-90 tanker aircraft in addition to upgrading the six existing Il-78Ms to the dash-90 standard — new avionics, additional fuel capabilities and replacing the  Aviadvigatel D-30 KP engines with new PS-90s. The proposal also includes converting one or two IAF Il-76 heavy transports for tanker duties. Russia also comes in against headwinds — chiefly over mounting concerns over the Il-76 platform and its availability rates (one of a handful of reasons why the IAF didn’t simply order more after deliveries of the original six begin in 2003). The lack of a boom system is a downer too. The IAF and Navy are convinced that their new generation aircraft need longer legs and they don’t want to remain in the drogue regime. Russia has been known to manoeuver against such headwinds in the past, so there’s no dismissing them just yet.

As things stand, the Indian Air Force won’t just be weighing its options — another contest is a commitment of time and budget at a time when other priorities are mounting. And that’s just the thing: the IAF knows it cannot afford another scrub.

5 thoughts on “India’s Fiercest Aerial Tanker War Brews”

  1. Boom and CDS simultaneously?!?!?
    Even if it were true wouldn’t it be foolhardy to use this operationally?
    What is already an unnatural act, taken to the point of recklessness.

    1. Agree. It’s highly unlikely — near impossible — that there’s a situation for both the centreline systems to be used together. It’s an indication of how hard-fought this contest could be.

  2. Clearly the Govt will play Boeing against airbus to get the best deal. In this, the IAF timelines go for a toss, as usual. Don’t see any tankers coming in before 2025 !!

  3. Every other countries, even using US jet, have chosen the A330 MRTT other the KC-46 Pegasus. There must be a reason why…

  4. The talented and innovative Russians will lose deal after deal to advanced Western suppliers though there is huge goodwill for them in India if they do not pay more attention to issues like reliability, quality control and maintenance. The Mi-26 could have closed out anyone else, but the next contract for heavy helos were for Chinooks – because the Mi-26 was impossible to maintain. The Rafale deal was swung partly because of our history with the M2K, whose reliability and sortie rates, esp compared to MiGs made the IAF fall in love with them, though the Baaz can paste the M2k in a WVR dogfight. In contrast the rock-solid reliability of the Mi-17 made us directly order 80 after 26/11 without any procedural hassle or Augusta like scandals. We love you Russkies. And we are your natural partners, who wont rip you off with rip-offs like the Chinese. But lives depend on qualitative superiority in battle, so try harder.

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