India needs a fighting force that can face adversaries on two fronts. This has been the gist of repeated official and unofficial statements in the past few years. However, the Indian Air Force (IAF) is staring at a crucial capability gap when it comes to mid-air refuelling, an exercise essential for extending the legs of its combat aircraft and for increasing the fighting force's reach. Now, with China in its crosshairs, the IAF has reportedly kicked off the procurement process for six mid-air refuelling aircraft for a third time -- two attempts were previously cancelled over the past decade. The Indian Air Force is once again looking to procure six mid-air refuelling aircraft in a deal that could be worth over $2 billion, according to a Times of India report. The procurement project has been commenced on Thursday, with the IAF issuing a request for information (RFI) for the six mid-air refuelling aircraft, also called tankers, and their associated equipment, the report added. According to the daily, the request for proposal (RFP) would be floated after the IAF receives the responses to its RFI by March 30. Underlining the desperate need for such platforms, the Air Force is even willing to induct second-hand refuelling aircraft so long as their remaining operational life is adequate, the ToI reported, adding that an unnamed source revealed Israel would be the "main contender for supplying such pre-owned aircraft". ALSO READ: IAF issues request for proposal to HAL for procurement of 83 Tejas LCA On both the occasions in the past decade when the IAF tried to acquire refuelling aircraft, the Airbus A-330 MRTT (mid-air refuelling aircraft) beat the four-engine Russian IL-78 in technical and commercial evaluations. But in both cases, the tenders were scrapped over issues related to the method used for determining the lowest bidder and pending Central Bureau of Investigation cases. This left the IAF with just the six Ilyushin-78 mid-air refuelling aircraft it had inducted in 2003-04. This time, however, the IL-78 aircraft is not a contender owing to the specifications listed in the fresh RFI.
According to the sources quoted by the national daily in its report, the IAF's RFI specifies the requirement for a twin-engine aircraft manned by a crew of two. The conditions, the sources told ToI, are meant to ensure lower maintenance costs and greater fuel efficiency. Under such conditions, the two main contenders would be the Airbus A-330 MRTT and Boeing KC-46A Pegasus.The IAF's six IL-78 aircraft are based out of Agra and meant to support combat assets in operations against Pakistan. The six new refuelling aircraft, however, are said to be slated for Panagarh in West Bengal and meant to support operations against China. The urgent need The IAF's mid-air refuelling capabilities are set to be hampered this year as its IL-78 tankers are slated for an overhaul in 2018, the Hindustan Times had reported in December last year. Of its fleet of six IL-78 aircraft, which are reportedly riddled with complications, the IAF has only two to three aircraft actually available for missions at any given time. "We will have even fewer refuellers to exploit during the refit... It's unavoidable," Air Chief Marshal Fali Major, a retired Air Force chief, was quoted as saying in the HT report. ALSO READ: Govt says fighter shortfall to worsen during NDA's term According to a Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) report, going by the IAF’s standards, the desired serviceability of the IL-78 aircraft should be 70 per cent. However, this stood at just 49 per cent during 2010-16. According to another Hindustan Times report that cited the CAG report, the Air Force's runways are too short for the IL-78 aircraft, their refuelling pods have faced frequent failures, and the airworthiness of the aircraft themselves is questionable. The CAG report was tabled in Parliament in July last year. (Read the full CAG report here) One of the highlights of the audit report's important findings was: "Serviceability of the IL fleet of the IAF was low because of a delay in servicing and repair. This was in turn largely attributable to poor availability of spares and delay by IAF in signing maintenance support contract with Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM)...." Further, the report revealed that the IL fleet continued to fly with vintage avionics from 1985 and no attempt had been made to upgrade them. ALSO READ: Procurement delays leave IAF with only 3 AWACS as PAF races ahead In fact, according to the CAG report, there was a delay in carrying out the first and second overhaul of the IL-series aircraft, which meant that aircraft were flown "well past the due date for overhaul". The report underlined that air-to-air refuelling was "a crucial capability, both during combat and peace-time operations" and that the IL-78 aircraft were "dedicated for this purpose". However, the scathing report pointed out that the IAF's air-to-air fuelling capability "was hampered" because of "inadequate infrastructure and support facilities".