The Indian Air Force (IAF) contest for mid-air refueling tanker aircraft will depend on how a United States Air Force (USAF) competition for a massive order for 179 tankers plays out towards the end of the year.
The Indian tender is being reprocessed after India’s Finance Ministry thought the IAF’s earlier choice of the Airbus A330 MRTT (Multi Role Tanker Transport) over the Russian IL-78 too expensive, earlier this year, and compelled the IAF to start over, to select six tankers that could cost over a billion US dollars.
The IAF is keen on making sure the Russian IL-78 faces sufficient competition and that the relative abilities of the respective aircraft are rendered patently evident. This, coupled with the calculation of life-cycle costs of the aircraft, under the Air Staff Qualitative Requirements (ASQRs), is likely intended to preempt the objections of the Finance Ministry.
In addition to the earlier two contestants, the IAF would also like to get US defense and aerospace major Boeing into the running to make the contest more interesting, if nothing else.
But any response to this contest will depend on a decision on the estimated USD 35 billion USAF KC-X program for 179 tankers, which was scheduled for sometime this month. Boeing is hesitant about committing to the Indian race by the deadline of mid-December, with most of its energies focused on the KC-X program and doubts about its willingness to establish an assembly line for the IAF, alone. Dr. Vivek Lall, Vice President of Boeing Defense, Space and Security in India, makes this quite clear, saying, “Boeing’s decision on whether to participate in the Indian contest will largely depend on the outcome of the US KC-X program. This is because we have not determined if we can start production for India in the absence of a US order.”
Airbus is also competing for the KC-X program, for which it had successfully bid with partner Northrop Grumman in an earlier run of the tender, with the KC-30 (renamed KC-45A by the US Department of Defense), a version of its Airbus A330 MRTT. The tender was subsequently canceled.
Also, after its experience in the earlier Indian tanker contest, Airbus is circumspect, and shies from committing to a response to the tender. In an emailed statement, Barbara Kracht, Vice President for Media Relations at Airbus Military, said, “On the basis of the experience with the last call for tender, we will thoroughly analyze and evaluate the new call for tender.”
Under Indian rules of defense procurement, a tender process is rendered vitiated if it has participation from merely a single vendor.