IAF re-launches $2 billion global hunt for acquiring 6 mid-air refuellers


The IAF has once again kicked off the over $2 billion procurement project for six desperately-needed mid-air refuelling aircraft to extend the strategic reach of its fighters and bombers after it was cancelled twice over the last decade due to cost and other issues.

The IAF on Thursday issued the RFI (request for Information) for the six flight refuelling aircraft or tankers and associated equipment. The formal tender or RFP (request for proposal) will be floated after the responses to the RFI are submitted by March 30.

After inducting six Russian-origin Ilyushin-78 mid-air refuelling aircraft in 2003-2004, the IAF had first taken up the case for the acquisition of six additional tankers in 2006. The two-engine Airbus A-330 MRTT (mid-air refuelling aircraft) was twice selected over the four-engine Russian IL-78 in the technical and commercial evaluation.

But both times, issues like the life cycle cost (LCC) methodology used in arriving at the lowest bidder (L-1) as well as pending CBI cases had led to the tenders being scrapped. Interestingly, this time the RFI specifies that the IAF wants twin-engine aircraft, with a two-man crew to ensure fuel efficiency and lower maintenance costs, say sources.

This effectively rules out the four-engine IL-78s, leaving the contest open to primarily the Airbus A-330 MRTT and Boeing KC-46A Pegasus. The IAF is ready to even induct second-hand refuelling aircraft if they have adequate operational life left. “Israel will be the main contender for supplying such pre-owned aircraft,” said a source.

The IAF urgently needs the six new refuelling aircraft to double the strike range of its fighters and bombers. While the six IL-78s are based at Agra to support operations against Pakistan, the six new tankers are meant for Panagarh in West Bengal with an eye firmly on China.

Panagarh, where the six new C-130J “Super Hercules” tactical airlift aircraft have already been based after the first six at the Hindon airbase on the outskirts of New Delhi, is also going to be the headquarters of the new 17 Mountain Strike Corps being progressively raised by the Army.

The 17 Corps, with two new high-altitude infantry divisions as well as armoured, artillery, air defence, engineer brigades spread from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh, will be fully formed with 90,274 soldiers at a cost Rs 64,678 crore by 2021, as earlier reported by TOI.

But the first RFP for the refuelling aircraft in 2006 was scrapped in 2010 because the finance ministry expressed “reservations relating to the competitiveness of the bids and the reasonableness of the price” of the A-330 MRTT.

In the second RFP floated in 2010, both A-330 MRTT and IL-78 cleared the extensive field trials. In the commercial evaluation thereafter, even though the IL-78 was cheaper in the off-the-shelf price, the A-330 MRTT emerged as the L-1 under the new LCC system. But questions were raised on the L-1 determination. The LCC basically identifies the “total cost of ownership” of a particular equipment or aircraft over its entire operational life. This time the IAF is keeping its fingers crossed.

TNN