The Indian Air Force (IAF) has sought financial quotes from American aviation giant Boeing and the European aerospace major Airbus for leasing of at least two tankers to overcome India’s critical shortage of mid-air refuelling capability.
While the IAF has sought leasing quotes for two mid-air tankers from Airbus, it has requested quotes for only one from Boeing, sources in the defence and security establishment told ThePrint.
This has led to speculation that India might end up leasing three tankers and will go in for a large order of six refuellers based on the experience of using them.
The IAF is in talks with both companies, the sources said, and a decision in this regard could come soon.
In consideration are the A330 multi-role tanker transport (MRTT) aircraft, a derivative of the twin-engine A330 passenger aircraft of Airbus, and the KC-46 tanker, a derivative of the Boeing 767 passenger jet, the sources added.
It was earlier believed that the IAF had made up its mind for the Airbus tanker, and Boeing wasn’t among the options.
When the process is completed, this will be the second major leasing of defence equipment by the Indian armed forces since November last year, when the Navy leased two Sea Guardian drones — unarmed versions of the deadly Predator series — from US firm General Atomics.
The leasing of defence systems is a new option that has been introduced by the Defence Acquisition Procedure of 2020.
‘Unprecedented range-enhancing capability’
India’s refueller fleet currently comprises six Russian Ilyushin-78 tankers, first inducted in 2003, that are facing maintenance and serviceability issues.
Emphasising the importance of mid-air refuellers, the sources said the tankers are a must for any modern air force as they offer unprecedented range-enhancing capability to fighters.
With mid-air refuellers, pilots can carry out strikes at longer ranges and also stay in flight without requiring to land and refuel.
“The Rafale aircraft has long-range capability because it can refuel mid-air. We have now gone in for Tejas Mk 1A, which comes with four major enhancements, including refuelling. There is no point in going for such large number of aircraft if we can’t refuel in the air,” a source said.
The IAF has been trying to acquire six mid-air refuellers since 2007 with no success due to multiple issues.
IAF chief Air Chief Marshal R.K.S. Bhadauria had said in his annual press conference in October last year that the force could lease refuellers as plans to acquire the tankers had not materialised for years.
The first lot of the Rafale fighters had flown into the country in July last year accompanied by two A330 MRTT of the French Air Force that provided them with mid-air refuelling as they travelled the 8,500-km journey from Merignac in France.
The French have already moved a proposal to India, offering six A330 MRTT aircraft on a government-to-government basis.