Indian Air Force

Fueling India’s Air Power Ambitions: Aerial Tanker Capabilities

It has been almost two decades now that IAF has been operating the tanker aircraft. The first induction of such aerial refueling aircraft for the Indian Air Force (IAF) came with the induction of the IL78 tanker aircraft in March 2003, marking the establishment of the 78 Squadron, aptly named the “Mid Air Refuelling Squadron.”

Strategic Importance Of Aerial Tankers

Aerial tankers offer significant strategic advantages, fundamentally reshaping the operational dynamics of aircraft by enhancing their endurance and range. By facilitating extended flight durations, aerial tankers enable aircraft to remain airborne for prolonged periods, thereby increasing their operational flexibility and effectiveness. This capability not only extends the striking range of aircraft but also enables the projection of air power far beyond conventional operational zones, fostering enhanced strategic reach and operational versatility.

A recent illustration of this capability is seen in the missions conducted by the Indian Air Force (IAF), wherein Su-30MKI aircraft undertook an eight-hour mission over the southwestern region of the Indian Ocean, supported by IAF IL-78 tankers. Similarly, the deployment of Rafale aircraft on a six-hour mission over the eastern region of the Indian Ocean underscores the indispensable role played by aerial tankers in enabling sustained and extended operations, thereby enhancing the IAF’s strategic capabilities and influence in the region. As exemplified by these missions, the integration of aerial tankers into military operations serves as a force multiplier, increasing the potency and reach of air power.

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Need For Additional Tankers

The Indian Air Force (IAF) identified the gap in the capability and sought to bolster its aerial refueling capabilities. The need for additional aircraft was felt back in 2007, yet faced repeated setbacks with numerous Request for Proposals (RFPs) being canceled. As the IAF continues to integrate new-generation fighters and modernize its existing fleet, including equipping older aircraft like the Mirage2000, and MiG-29 with refueling probes, the urgency for dedicated tanker aircraft becomes increasingly apparent.

Recognizing the critical shortage of aerial refueling capabilities, the Indian Air Force (IAF) started efforts to augment its tanker fleet. In 2006, an RFP was initiated to procure additional tankers, attracting contenders like the IL78 and the Airbus A330 MRTT. Despite selecting the Airbus platform in the subsequent years, the high costs associated with the acquisition led to the cancellation of the RFP, derailing the IAF’s efforts to bolster its tanker fleet. Subsequent attempts in 2010 and 2013 met similar fate due to cost concerns, highlighting the challenges in addressing the pressing need for tanker aircraft.

However, in 2018, the IAF renewed its quest for tankers, issuing another RFP aimed at acquiring six aircraft. Notably, the specifications of the RFP, which mandated twin-engine configuration and a minimum 40-year technical lifespan, effectively excluded the IL78 from contention. This criterion signaled the IAF’s efforts to move away from Russian aircraft.

Present Status


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Though not in contest, Russia has proposed a comprehensive package to supply next-generation IL-78M-90 aircraft. In addition to this, upgrading the six existing IL-78M aircraft to the ‘dash 90’ standards, consisting of a suite of enhancements such as new avionics, increased fuel capacity, and the replacement of the current D-30 KP engines with more advanced PS-90 engines. Furthermore, the proposal includes the conversion of one or two IL-76 aircraft into tanker variants, further expanding the IAF’s aerial refueling capabilities.

The IL-78, equipped with three UPAZ-1 refueling drogues, is capable of transferring an impressive 2,200 liters per minute, the IL78 boasts the ability to refuel up to three jets simultaneously. With a maximum fuel-carrying capacity of 138 tons, the IL78 has a flight range of up to 6,100 km with a payload of 20 tons of fuel, or 3,000 km with a heavier load of 47 tons, although these figures are subject to variation based on factors such as altitude and flight speed.

The operational challenges faced by the Indian Air Force (IAF) with its existing fleet of six IL78 tanker aircraft answers the IAF’s tilt toward western aircraft. Despite expectations of a 70 percent availability rate, the IL78 fleet has consistently fallen short, with reported rates dipping below 50 percent. Maintenance issues, particularly the recurrent failure of refueling pods, coupled with a scarcity of spare parts and inadequate support from the original equipment manufacturer (OEM), have further aggravated the situation. The ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict has only compounded these challenges, increasing the shortage of critical components and impeding effective maintenance efforts.

Proposal To Lease the Aircraft

The new Defence Acquisition Policy 2020 allows services to lease the equipment, thus IAF is looking to lease the Airbus A330 MRTT. On the other hand HAL and Israeli IAI have signed an agreement to convert the Boeing 767 into a refueling tanker.

Lease Of A330 MRTT

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The Airbus A330 MRTT, derived from the Airbus A330-200 airliner, stands as a versatile dual-role aircraft, adeptly serving as both an air-to-air refueler and a cargo transport platform. It has a comprehensive suite of refueling capabilities tailored to accommodate a diverse range of receiver aircraft configurations. With the Airbus Military Aerial Refueling Boom System facilitating refueling operations for receptacle-equipped receiver aircraft akin to the American aircraft refueling method, along with Cobham 905E under-wing pods and Cobham 805E fuselage refueling unit catering to probe-equipped counterparts, the A330 MRTT ensures seamless interoperability across various aircraft types. Notably, its operational range of 5200 km, coupled with the ability to carry 12 tons of cargo and accommodate up to 50 personnel, shows its versatility in multifaceted mission scenarios. Remarkably, while fulfilling cargo and personnel transport requirements, the A330 MRTT maintains the capacity to support up to four aircraft simultaneously during aerial refueling operations.

The Indian Air Force in pursuit of leasing tanker aircraft has issued RFI. The RFI has been responded by Air Tanker, a UK-based company operating a fleet of Airbus A330 MRTT. With over a decade gone since initial procurement efforts began, leasing emerges as a timely and economically viable alternative for the IAF. Moreover, the extensive evaluation of the A330 platform and the acquaintance with aircraft through participation in joint exercises with nations like the UAE, France, and the UK, has provided the IAF with valuable insights into its capabilities and operational suitability. This familiarity positions the A330 MRTT as a better choice.

Proposal Of HAL

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On the Other hand, the collaboration between Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and the Israeli Aerospace Industries (IAI) to convert the Boeing 767 into a Multi-Mission Tanker Transport (MMTT) aircraft has given new option for Indian Air Force (IAF). Building upon IAI’s successful conversion of the 767 for the Colombian Air Force, where 767 aircraft were acquired from Chinese Airlines, and modified into MMTT. With the proposal to acquire six such platforms under consideration, the MMTT variant of the Boeing 767 offers a cost-effective solution to operational requirements of the IAF. As the IAF evaluates its options for bolstering its tanker capabilities, the MMTT variant is a viable solution.

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Considering the IAF goal to reach 42 squadrons, the requirement of tankers is bound to increase. The medium-term requirement is stated at 20 aircraft considering the induction of almost 220 Tejas Mk1a, thus there has to be an urgency on the side of both IAf and MoD to accelerate the acquisition of tankers to harness the full capability of the aircraft and essential to ensure the combat effectiveness of the IAF’s future expanding fleet. 


Bheemanagouda M Patil

Hi, I'm Bheemanagouda Patil, currently I'm pursuing Mechanical Engineering (3rd year) from Dayanand Sagar College Of Engineering. I write on topics related defence and geopolitics.

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