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The Indian Air Force (IAF) is set to bolster its aerial refueling capabilities with the recent approval by the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) for the procurement of new Flight Refueller Aircraft (FRA). This marks the third major acquisition of FRAs since 2006-2007, highlighting the critical role these airborne fuel stations play in extending the reach and operational flexibility of fighter jets.

The IAF’s reliance on air refueling began in 2003 with the induction of the IL-78, a modified Russian cargo aircraft. While these six IL-78s served extensively, concerns about their serviceability prompted the search for replacements.

The previous acquisition attempt saw the IL-78 pitted against the more modern Airbus A330 MRTT. While the IL-78 offered lower upfront costs, the A330 MRTT’s fuel capacity, operating efficiency, and advanced design made it a compelling alternative. Ultimately, the deal did not materialize.

The latest announcement comes after years of delays and underscores the IAF’s urgent need for modern FRAs. The specific type of aircraft is yet to be disclosed, but the competition is likely to involve established players like Airbus and Boeing. Interestingly, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) has also proposed converting six Boeing 767s into FRAs in collaboration with Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI). This option, if accepted, could involve indigenous participation and technology transfer.

Modern FRAs significantly enhance the IAF’s ability to conduct long-range missions, strategic deployments, and aerial combat operations. The acquisition will be crucial for maintaining air superiority and deterring potential threats in the region. As details emerge, observers will be keen to see the type of aircraft chosen and the extent of potential domestic involvement, marking a significant step forward in the IAF’s modernization journey.