4 minute readBoeing KC-46, Airbus A330 MRTT in IAF tanker contest
Israelis in, but Russians out of tender that will play out for the 3rd time

A KC-46 refuels a C-17 Globemaster III as an F-16 keeps watch | Photo: Boeing

The Russian four-engine IL-78 mid-air refueling aircraft stands disqualified, ab initio, from a new Indian Air Force (IAF) contest for six Flight Refueling Aircraft worth an estimated USD 2 billion, which began last month with the publication of a Request For Information (RFI).

Among other specifications, the RFI lists the power-plant requirements to be ‘Two Turbo Fan Engines’, automatically disqualifying the Ilyushin from the competition.

This leaves the Airbus A330 MRTT (Medium Range Tanker Transport) and the Boeing 767-based KC-46 tanker to slug it out, in what will be the third time this contest has been played. The Airbus A330 MRTT has been shortlisted twice before, both times beating out the IL-78. Both times, the Request For Proposal (RFP) was ultimately withdrawn. This will be the first time Boeing will compete for the Indian requirement with its KC-46 aircraft.

President of Boeing India, Pratyush Kumar, told StratPost, “We received an RFI from India for aerial refueling tankers and have briefed the Indian Air Force about the KC-46’s capabilities. We are responding to the RFI.”

“The KC-46 offers India the most reliable and economical tanker capability needed for flexible multi-role refueling. Based on the proven 767 commercial platform, it can refuel both hose-and-drogue as well as boom receptacle receiver aircraft on any sortie, and can be rapidly reconfigured in two hours for any mission — carrying passengers, cargo, aeromedical or any combination of the three, while still performing its main air refueling role. The KC-46 will deliver tremendous savings over its lifetime through lower maintenance, depot and repair costs. Similar to the Indian Navy’s P-8I aircraft, Boeing is building the KC-46 “in-line” which is more efficient and helps expand the life of the aircraft,” added Kumar.

But what could change the play completely, is a further provision in the RFI that allows for vendors to submit bids for second-hand aircraft.

A British Royal Air Force A330 MRTT refuels a Tornado and a Eurofighter Typhoon | Photo: Airbus

Airbus has also confirmed that it will participate in the contest for the third time.

Last week, Fernando Alonso, Head of Military Aircraft at Airbus Defence and Space told media at the Singapore Airshow 2018 that while they intended to respond to the Indian RFI, they would wait to see the requirements before deciding on an offer of a new-build aircraft or a second-hand aircraft.

“We know what you say – pre-owned airplane is second-hand airplanes. We have already done that. So we have already – the last two Australian airplanes – they are airplanes which did not come off the production line – they were airplanes that were operated by Qantas. So we know how to convert an already-used civil airplane into a military derivative. And again it just emphasizes the interest in this way of doing things. We’re not building a tanker – we’re converting a tanker from a civil airplane. So why would we not answer to the Indian requirements? We will answer. We’re patient. We’ve won twice – we were not given a contract twice. If it happens again, we’ll try again. We believe we have the best airplane. And I think it’s just a question of time before we see tankers in India,” said Alonso, clarifying further on the question of an offer for new or second-hand aircraft, saying, “Let’s wait and see what they need. I will not speculate, let’s wait and see what they need and then we’ll answer.”

The new entrant to this contest, Boeing already has a large order book, with 179 KC-46 aircraft being ordered by the United States Air Force. None have been delivered, yet. Airbus has a total of 56 MRTT aircraft on order with 29 delivered and in operation as of November 2017.

The newer Boeing KC-46 has gone up against the A330 MRTT in South Korea and Poland. Both countries selected the Airbus aircraft. So far, Japan is the only expected customer for the KC-46, besides the United States Air Force (USAF).

In theory, the Brazilian Embraer KC390 could also be a contender.

The Colombian Air Force IAI/Bedek converted Boeing 767 tanker refueling Kfir fighter aircraft | Photo: IAI

But the provision to permit offers for pre-owned aircraft is also being speculated to allow competition from Israeli entities. Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) has converted Boeing 767 commercial aircraft for the mid-air refueling aircraft role for Colombia along with an order for the upgrades to their Kfir fighter and offered a similar configuration to Brazil, as well. IAI and Elta have also configured Russian IL-76 aircraft for the AWACS role for the Indian Air Force, in the past.

This could make the contest completely about cost, if the eventual Request For Proposal (RFP) is not too fussy about capability. However, doubts about long-term maintenance and the associated cost would have to be quelled before a pre-owned option could become a serious bid. It is important to note that much will depend on whether the IAF requires a combat-ready military tanker or simply an airliner that pumps gas.

The responses to the RFI have to be submitted by March 30, 2018.

So what do you think?