Business & Defence

How HAL’s Tie-Up with Israel Could Solve IAF’s Aerial Refuelling Woes

HAL stated on Wednesday that it had signed a memorandum of understanding with Israel’s Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) to create multi-mission tanker transport (MMTT) planes that can refuel other planes in mid-flight.

According to a news statement from HAL, the MoU envisions civil (passenger) aircraft being converted to a configuration that allows them to perform both aerial refuelling and cargo and transport missions.

According to HAL, the alliance will deliver “new capabilities and cost-effective solutions” to India’s defence industry. The MoU’s scope also includes transitioning transport aircraft to freighter missions, according to HAL.

IAI CEO Boaz Levy said the business was happy to introduce its “best value” MMTT solution to India, where it would be manufactured and marketed using “local resources.” Levy also expressed his continued support for the Make-in-India initiative.

In the 3rd decade, search for airborne refuellers

Aerial refuellers are big transport planes like the Boeing 707, Boeing 767, or Airbus A330 that can refuel fighters, patrol planes, bombers, and a variety of other planes in mid-flight. For more than 50 years, aerial refuellers have been a vital part of major armed forces.

The increased range of aircraft boosts a military’s combat capability by allowing planes to attack targets further away while also eliminating the need to land and refuel on vulnerable airbases.

When the Indian Air Force received the first of six Russian-built Il-78 refuelling aircraft in 2003, it became the world’s first. The Il-78 is a modernised variant of the IL-76 transport plane from the Soviet era. However, worries about the aircraft’s serviceability arose quickly, and the Indian Air Force began looking for a successor by 2006-2007. The Indian Air Force twice put out tenders for a new aerial refuelling tanker, and both times an Airbus A330 model was chosen.

The Airbus A330 MRTT (multirole tanker transport) is a variant of the popular twin-engine Airbus A330 passenger plane with a long range. While the A330 MRTT was more expensive than the IL-78, it was a newer design with lower operational expenses due to the presence of two engines. The Russian jet is powered by four engines.

Despite being chosen twice, the A330 MRTT was never acquired due to cost concerns. The Indian Air Force said in 2019 that it was looking to recommence the process of purchasing aerial refuellers.

The used market solution

While the A330 MRTT and Il-78 are essentially new planes that have been converted to aerial refuelers, IAI has been in the business of adapting older planes. For “more than 12 customers worldwide,” the business claims to have adapted dozens of aircraft for air-to-air refuelling missions.

IAI has touted its ability to turn secondhand Boeing 767 jets into tankers by installing specific systems for storing and transferring jet fuel.

Hundreds of older Boeing 767 and Airbus A330 planes are available on the worldwide market, with decades of airframe life remaining, providing a range of economical possibilities for governments desiring aerial refuelling capabilities. Aerial refuelling stations usually last several decades. The last of the KC-135 tankers remaining in service with the US Air Force, for example, was produced in the mid-1960s.

Colombia employs a Boeing 767 refueller that was brought in from Israel. In 2013, the Brazilian Air Force chose an Israeli Boeing 767 solution, but no deal was signed.

Versatility

IAI offers two types of refuelling systems for the Boeing 767: the ‘probe and drogue’ and the ‘flying boom.’ The Indian Air Force’s Il-78 uses the probe and drogue system. The Flying Boom, on the other hand, is mostly utilised by aircraft designed in the United States and enables for the transfer of higher volumes of gasoline in less time. Only flying boom can refuel aircraft like the Indian Navy’s P-8I maritime patrol jets and the Indian Air Force’s C-17 big transport jets.

Boeing has previously denied IAI permission to adapt planes it had constructed for the tanker duty, according to Israeli media. This has been ascribed to IAI being a potential competitor to the Boeing KC-46, a newly introduced purpose-built Boeing 767 tanker.

“The KC-46 costs $250-300 million, whereas IAI is providing its converted aircraft for $150 million, with no major reduction in capacity and performance,” according to Globes, an Israeli news outlet.

The Indian Air Force had previously stated that, due to its limited budget, it would explore leasing aerial refuellers. The collaboration between IAI and HAL could give the Indian Air Force with a cost-effective option.

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