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The Indian Air Force (IAF) is taking a fresh leap towards bolstering its mid-air refuelling capabilities. Last month, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) granted a renewed Acceptance of Necessity (AoN) for the procurement of six mid-air refuelers.

The IAF currently operates a fleet of six Russian-made IL-78MD aerial refuelers. However, these have faced serviceability issues and are deemed insufficient to meet the needs of the IAF’s growing fleet of fighter jets. The IAF has expressed a requirement for a total of 18 air refuelers to effectively extend the operational range of its combat aircraft.

Contenders in the Race

Several companies are vying for this lucrative contract:

  • Airbus: The European aerospace giant remains a frontrunner with its commercially proven A330 MRTT platform.
  • HAL-IAI Partnership: India’s Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) has teamed up with Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) to offer a conversion solution, proposing the modification of Boeing 737 aircraft into aerial refuelers.
  • Boeing: The American aerospace major has thrown its hat in the ring with its KC-46 Pegasus tanker, potentially offered through a government-to-government deal.
  • Embraer: The Brazilian company is a wildcard entrant, offering its C-390 Millennium transport aircraft and expressing interest in developing a dedicated Multi-Role Tanker Transport variant specifically for the IAF’s needs.

The IAF is considering leasing an A330 MRTT from France, potentially for evaluation purposes. This move could pave the way for a future purchase, considering Airbus’ past success in the IAF’s tender process.

The IAF faces the challenge of balancing cost-effectiveness with the desired capabilities. While the A330 MRTT offers a proven solution, the previous bids faced hurdles due to high costs. HAL-IAI’s conversion proposal and Embraer’s potential development offer potentially more economical options, but their capabilities might require careful assessment. Boeing’s KC-46 could be a strong contender, especially if a government-to-government deal offers favorable terms.

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