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The Indian Air Force (IAF) is looking to significantly expand its fleet of Flight Refuelling Aircraft (FRA) to enhance the operational range and flexibility of its fighter jets. This move comes amidst a focus on bolstering India’s airpower capabilities, particularly in light of potential two-front scenarios.

Currently, IAF fighter jets often operate from high-altitude airfields due to their all-weather capabilities. However, these airfields have limitations on the weight of weapons that can be carried due to thinner air at higher altitudes. By deploying FRAs, fighter jets can refuel mid-air, allowing them to take off from hinterland airfields with their full payload and extend their operational range deep into enemy territory.

The IAF currently has a fleet of just six IL-78 FRAs, which reportedly suffer from a low availability rate. Additionally, plans to procure six Airbus A330MRTT tankers were scrapped twice due to high unit costs.

To address these challenges, the IAF is now exploring more cost-effective options. One such option is the acquisition of six ex-civilian Boeing 737 aircraft converted into FRAs by a joint venture between Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI). These converted platforms offer a potentially quicker and more affordable solution compared to purchasing new, dedicated tankers.

While the initial plan focuses on procuring six Boeing 737-based FRAs, the IAF ultimately aims to have a fleet of 12 tankers to adequately support its operational requirements. This expansion will provide greater flexibility in deploying fighter jets across diverse theaters and enhance the IAF’s overall combat effectiveness.

The IAF’s focus on expanding its FRA fleet underlines the growing importance of aerial refueling capabilities in modern warfare. By enabling fighter jets to fly further and carry heavier payloads, FRAs play a crucial role in extending the reach and effectiveness of airpower. This, in turn, strengthens India’s deterrence capabilities and provides greater strategic options in the face of potential threats.

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