By Staff Correspondent
India’s Air Force (IAF) intensifies its quest to enhance its aerial refueling capabilities by exploring many options, including a prospective transformation of Boeing 767s into Flight Refueling Aircraft (FRAs). In a landmark move in April 2023, Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) forged a strategic memorandum of understanding with Israel’s Aerospace Industries (IAI), paving the way for the conversion of civilian aircraft to multi-mission tanker transport (MMTT) aircraft within Indian territory.
The joint venture promises to usher in a new era of air refuelling and transport capabilities, as highlighted in HAL’s official press release. The conversion encompasses air refuelling aircraft and ‘passenger to freighter aircraft’ conversion capabilities. This historic MoU was inked in Delhi by HAL’s CEO of the MiG Complex, D. Maiti, and IAI’s VP and GM of the aviation group, Yaacov Berkovitz, under the watchful eyes of Chandraker Bharati, the joint secretary (Aero) of the ministry of defence.
R. Madhavan, the chairman and managing director of HAL, lauded the partnership as a crucial diversification strategy for the company. Concurrently, Boaz Levy, IAI’s president and CEO, emphasised their commitment to India’s “Make in India” initiative through this collaboration.
The FRA plays a pivotal role in modern air forces, allowing aircraft to refuel mid-flight, extending their operational range and endurance. The IAF, with its ageing fleet of six IL-78 Midas aircraft, has been actively seeking modern FRA solutions for years. Despite the IL-78s’ longstanding service since their induction in 2003, maintenance issues, especially concerning their refuelling pods, have increasingly compromised their operational readiness.
Retired Group Captain R.K. Narang underscored the necessity of air-to-air refuelling capabilities for India, advocating the conversion of existing aircraft into FRAs as a cost-effective solution. This perspective aligns seamlessly with the HAL-IAI partnership, promising a significant enhancement to the IAF’s aerial refuelling capabilities. The IAF is also reportedly in discussions with Airbus, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin for the procurement of six pre-used refuellers, with each company offering different aircraft models.
Tracing back to the early 1990s, the IAF’s journey to acquire FRAs has been fraught with challenges. From budgetary constraints leading to cancellations of tenders and selected platforms deemed too expensive, the IAF has encountered numerous obstacles. The conversion of Boeing 767 passenger aircraft into MMTT aircraft emerges as a cost-effective alternative amidst these challenges, backed by the aircraft’s proven track record and substantial fuel-carrying capacity.
Retired Group Captain Sanjeev Kanwar emphasised the versatility of used passenger aircraft conversions, highlighting IAI’s global leadership in aerial refuelling system development and manufacture. He also noted the potential benefits of leasing FRAs, despite the limited availability of such services, as it alleviates the maintenance burdens associated with owning a fleet.
However, the IAF’s journey is far from over, with budgetary constraints remaining a significant hurdle. The high costs of purchasing, operating, and maintaining FRA aircraft necessitate careful consideration and strategic planning. With the IAF set to issue a fresh tender, all eyes are on whether this renewed effort will finally bridge the critical gap in India’s aerial capabilities, solidifying its defence posture in the region and beyond.