Nine months of planning for Exercise Gagan Shakti brought forth immaculate execution during the period from April 08 to 22, 2018. The stated aims of the Exercise were real time coordination, deployment and employment of air power in a short and intense battle scenario. Almost the entire might of the IAF was exercised to validate its concept of operations and war waging capabilities. Nuclear and biological warfare were at the periphery of the exercise and the ability to fight a two-front war with China and Pakistan, an unspoken agenda. The first part of the Exercise focussed on the Western front and then the whole activity shifted to the Northern front. The IAF flew over 11,000 sorties, including nearly 9,000 by its combat aircraft. As a part of the Exercise, long range strike missions were planned and flown over targets in Lakshadweep. During the long range bombing operations, Su-30s got airborne from Kalaikunda on the East coast to run bombing operations over the general area of Lakshadweep. The aircraft were refuelled en route and on the return trip by IAF flight refuellers. This also showed the IAF’s preparedness and reach to respond to contingencies over the Indian Ocean Region if required.
When four Indian Air Force (IAF) Sukhoi Su-30 MKIs flew from India to Australia in July this year to participate in Exercise Pitch Black, a multi-national biennial war game, they were refueled en route in the air by the IAF’s Flight Refuelling Aircraft (FRA). While technology has yielded reasonably long range combat aircraft, unfulfilled military avarice has demanded more and more in terms of reach and range, and these objectives have been attained through flight refueling, varyingly termed as mid-air refueling, air-to-air refueling, in flight refueling et al.
Indeed, flight refueling is steadily proliferating and is no longer the exclusive domain of a few advanced nations such as the US which, in the past supported its military allies by loaning them flight refuellers or even operating the aircraft in support. The prominent Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) for FRA are Airbus, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Embraer, Ilyushin Aviation Complex, Xi’an Aircraft, AIRO and Israel Aerospace Industries while some more like India are engaged in R&D to produce their own versions of flight refuellers. The market for military FRA is projected to grow at almost eight per cent over the next three to four years. The reason lies in the advantages of flight refueling which are increasingly manifest.
The range and endurance of aerial platforms (not just combat aircraft but transport aircraft, AWACS, AEW also) can be increased considerably. Combat aircraft can enhance their staying power, time on station or the ability to reach targets beyond their normal radius of action. In case of hot and high airfield operation, where their weapon payload is otherwise restricted, they can still carry a full payload at the cost of equivalent fuel weight which is then made up through air-to-air refueling. In addition, air-to-air refuelling enables combat aircraft to be moved from one theatre to another rapidly as demonstrated during the positioning of IAF assets for Exercise Pitch Black. The most alluring attribute of flight refuelling is the extension of reach for combat aircraft and this was practiced by the IAF during Exercise Gagan Shakti held earlier this year.
Exercise Gagan Shakti and Flight Refuelling
Nine months of planning for Exercise Gagan Shakti brought forth immaculate execution during the period from April 08 to 22, 2018. The stated aims of the exercise were real time coordination, deployment and employment of air power in a short and intense battle scenario. Almost the entire might of the IAF was exercised to validate its concept of operations and war waging capabilities. Nuclear and biological warfare were at the periphery of the exercise and the ability to fight a two-front war with China and Pakistan, an unspoken agenda. The first part of the exercise focussed on the Western front and then the whole activity shifted to the Northern front. The IAF flew over 11,000 sorties, including nearly 9,000 by its combat aircraft. As a part of the Exercise, long range strike missions were planned and flown over targets in Lakshadweep. During the long range bombing operations, Su-30s got airborne from Kalaikunda on the East coast to run bombing operations over the general area of Lakshadweep. The aircraft were refuelled en route and on the return trip by IAF flight refuellers. This also showed the IAF’s preparedness and reach to respond to contingencies over the Indian Ocean Region, if required.
A Press Information Bureau release by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) on April 17, mentioned the long range maritime strike missions from the East coast to targets “well out on the Western seaboard” and went on to announce that, “After quick repositioning of Maritime Assets, the focus has now shifted in Phase–II to addressing targets over the Eastern Sea Board right up to the Malacca Straits.” Some media reports also quoted ‘defence sources’ as saying that missions had been flown over Malacca Straits and that the Chinese ‘String of Pearls’ had now been shown to be within Indian strike range. However, subsequent reports quoted officials stating that the IAF had demonstrated its ability to reach maritime targets as far away as 4,000 kilometres in the Malacca Straits but the force stuck to the targets provided by the Indian Navy, none of which were in the waterway around Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia.
Another MoD press released on April 24, 2018, after the culmination of the exercise stated that ships were deployed in both the Arabian Sea as well as in Bay of Bengal, for anti-shipping strikes by IAF maritime aircraft operating from bases on the East and West coast, as well as from island territories; no mention was made of Malacca Straits. However, the exercise amply demonstrated IAF capability of engaging maritime targets in the Indian Ocean Region, including by employment of flight refueling where the targets were beyond range without flight refueling.
In addition to the long range strikes over far off targets, Exercise Gagan Shakti validated the capability to move strike aircraft from one theatre to another quickly and with no time wasted in staging through intermediate airfields. Alternatively, without moving the strike aircraft from a main base, their use in distant areas in a two-front scenario by using flight refueling en route, the strike power can be “force multiplied” to go beyond plain arithmetic of squadron strengths. The IAF claimed a very high serviceability for all its combat aircraft during the exercise; the figure of 80 per cent was affirmed by the MoD in its press release. That may realistically be attainable for combat aircraft, given the conditions of adequate build up and warning and a short swift war. However, the serviceability of FRA is another question. Let us see India’s fight refueling capability and its ongoing endeavours to beef it up.
India’s FRA C apability
Having contracted for six Ilyushin IL-78MKI FRA with Uzbekhistan in 2002, India has had FRA capability since 2003. The aircraft were received in 2003; their Russian airframe, a dated version of the IL-76 with 1985 vintage avionics, was equipped with an Israeli fuel transfer system. The IAF’s No 78 Squadron received the aircraft and was named Mid Air Refueling Squadron (MARS). Those six FRA continue to be in service and were the ones that were used during Exercise Gagan Shakti for refueling Su-30s en route from Kalaikunda to Lakshadweep area. The IL-78MKI can refuel three jets simultaneously and, in one operation, can refuel six to eight Su-30MKIs. In addition, it can also refuel the Jaguar and the Mirage 2000. The latest aircraft to be refueled by the IL-78 is the Netra Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) aircraft which is based on an Embraer ERJ-145 airframe.
The planned serviceability of the FRA fleet at the time of induction was pegged at 70 per cent, but that figure was never achieved and the actual average serviceability has remained less than 50 per cent. Hence the flagging earlier in this article about the serviceability of FRA in a possible conflict scenario. Availability of spares and ease of maintenance have also been serious concerns, especially so in the case of frequent failure of refuelling pods, inadequate repair facilities and poor maintenance support from the OEM. A Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report presented last year to the Parliament listed several other issues with the IL-78MKI utilisation, the most serious one being the deficiency of hangars for servicing as only one had been constructed. Possibly some of the maintenance and serviceability issues could have been averted if these precious assets had been parked inside hangars.
Another issue that was raised in the report was that, while the aircraft requires a runway length of 11,480 feet to 15,022 feet to carry full fuel loads, no effort had been made to construct such runways although the IAF had, since the induction of the FRA, identified ten airfields for the purpose of modifying runways to suit FRA requirements. Possibly, the runway extension has been shelved due to the fact that the aircraft are due for a major overhaul in 2018-2019 during which, the engine is to be upgraded from the present Aviadvigatel D-30 KP engines to new PS-90s, thus obviating the need for the longer runway. Reportedly, Rs 4,250 crore has been allocated for upgradation and enhancement of IL-78MKI/IL-76 fleet of the IAF and in addition to new engines, more modern avionics are also planned to be fitted on both types.
There is also the issue of shortage of hydrant refuelling systems to tank up the IL-78s quickly and efficiently. The CAG report also pointed out that the IAF has not obtained approval for creating 12 dedicated corridors for air-to-air refuelling so that commercial traffic is not disrupted as a result. The scant use of FRA during Exercise Gagan Shakti was possible due to prior coordination and the fact that the missions were planned in advance. However, a serious interrogation mark would raise its head in case of FRA use on a larger scale during actual operations.
While Exercise Gagan Shakti and Exercise Pitch Black saw the use of the IL-78MKI FRA, the IAF has long felt the need for some more FRAs to meet the requirements of a possible two-front war. Indeed, the search for a new FRA began just three years after the induction of the IL-78MKI FRA with the first Request For Proposal (RFP) being put forth in 2006 against which the Airbus A-330 Multi Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) emerged as the finalist. However, just as was the case of the MMRCA selection process, in January 2010, the RFP was inanely shelved. The reason given was that the Finance Ministry expressed “reservations relating to the competitiveness of the bids and the reasonableness of the price.”
Another RFP which followed in September 2010, attracted bids from three contenders: Russian Ilyushin, Ukrainian Antonov Design Bureau and Airbus. Antonov’s proposal was rejected on technical grounds. In January 2013, Airbus’ A-330 MRTT was selected over IL-78 as the L-1 choice although the IL-78 had a lower unit price because a selection criterion that compared operational costs over its entire life cycle was used. However, the process was terminated this time also citing high operational costs.
Thus, the IAF had six not-too-reliable IL-78 MKI FRAs at the beginning of this year when it issued a fresh Request for Information (RFI) for procuring “six FRAs along with their associated equipment for the IAF to meet air-to-air refuelling requirements.” To keep the operational costs low, the requirement announced was for a twin-engine, two-man crew aircraft including pre-used airframes with at least 40 years of residual life. In the case of the previous RFPs, the only contenders had been the IL-78 and the A-330MRTT. With the IL-78, being a four-engine aircraft, out of the reckoning, the A-330MRTT remains a formidable contender; but there are at least two other strong challengers.
The first one is the Boeing KC-46A Pegasus which did not participate in the previous selections as it was not ready since its development programme was plagued by delays. The KC-46A is based on Boeing 767-200 and Boeing is committed to building 179 for the USAF by 2027. It can also be reconfigured to cargo and aero-medical evacuation roles and is equipped with armour in the cockpit for crew protection, Infra Red (IR) countermeasures to deceive missiles and Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP) hardening to operate in hostile environs. Japan is the first international customer for the KC-46A but, interestingly, South Korea, a close trade and strategic partner for US, has favoured the A-330MRTT over the KC-46A. The aircraft was first shown to the IAF at Seattle in 2016, and has been presented to the IAF a few times in the past few months. Thus its capabilities are well known to the IAF. It also offers the advantage of being able to refuel the IAF’s C-17 Globemaster III, Lockheed Martin C-130J and Chinook CH-47F (yet to be inducted) as also Indian Navy’s P8I Neptune maritime patrol aircraft, all of which cannot be refuelled by the IL-78MKI.
The other likely contender is Israel Aerospace Industries’ Bedek Aviation Group with its Boeing 767-300ER Multi-Mission Tanker Transport (MMTT) with a modern glass cockpit, new engines, under-wing hose-and-drogue refuelling pods and a boom customised for each customer. The aircraft can be reconfigured to carry 200 troops or 60 tonnes of cargo when required. Bedek claims that the costs will be 15 to 20 per cent lower than an alternative with same performance and operational capabilities. There is also some feeble speculation about Brazilian Embraer KC-390 becoming a candidate for the IAF FRA selection process as well.
In a bid to bolster its claim, Airbus made a clever offer last year of a package deal for six A-330MRTTs that included an air-to-air refueling kit for the 56 C-295 as replacement for AVRO HS-748 transport aircraft that India is procuring from Airbus. The deal for the C-295, however, is moving at an agonisingly slow pace. The Airbus offer holds only mild interest for the IAF as a C-295 cannot refuel combat aircraft, but would be restricted to refuelling helicopters and some other slower aircraft. There is some temptation in that offer as even the figure of 12 (six existing plus six new) FRAs would be inadequate to meet the tasks of the IAF and the Indian Navy. Even discounting the lure of that offer, the A-330MRTT holds an edge over the KC-46A in terms of performance. Its range is 6,350 nm as against the KC-46A’s, its maximum cruise altitude 42,651 ft as against the KC-46A’s 35,000 ft, and maximum fuel capacity 111 tonne as against the KC-46A’s 96.3 tonne. However, the KC-46A is smaller in size (length 166 ft as against the A-330MRTT’s 209 ft) and its cost is likely to be less than two thirds of the A-330 MRTT. Thus, it is possible that, as financial considerations had bombed the previous RFPs, the lower cost of the KC-46A may become the final deciding factor.
The FRA market place has, in recent years, thrown up an emerging trend of multi-role tankers manifest in KC-46A and Israel’s Boeing 767-300ER. Possibly inspired by this trend and upset by the course of the two earlier failed selection processes, the IAF has reportedly asked for the Airborne Warning And Control System (AWACS) aircraft being developed by Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO) around an Airbus A-330 platform since 2015, to have the additional role of FRA. It is self-evident that this FRA-AWACS combination aircraft will not do justice to either role and may not be a success in the long run. The only purpose it may serve is to delude the IAF that it has numbers in both the fleet of AWACS and FRAs with one airframe standing up and being counted in both fleet!
As far back as 2012, the Vice Chief of the Air Staff (VCAS), Air Marshal DC Kumaria, had declared at the Fifth National Seminar on Aerospace Technologies, that in future, all combat aircraft of the IAF would have flight refueling capability. He said that the decision applied to all current and future acquisitions, whether combat jets, transport aircraft, helicopters or other assets. The IAF has still not reached that state, but there is no doubt that, should a two-front war scenario confront India, the present holding may fall short of the requirement at critical junctures. The ongoing selection process for a new twin-engine FRA does not have much of a challenge to reach a final choice, but the problem will not end there as there may not be money to buy the selected FRA. For FY 2018-2019, the IAF had made a projection of Rs 114,526 crore while the allocation is only to the tune of Rs 65,891 crore. Indeed, the IAF has reportedly stated its inability to make even the tranche payments for purchases already committed prior to this financial year.
As we already have the IL-78MKI on our strength, from a simplistic point of view, adding the same type would have made for economy of training, ground equipment and spares etc. However, the IL-78 MKI’s record has been unsatisfactory and the cost of maintaining it at even 50 per cent serviceability was high. Thus the decision for a twin-engine FRA is evidently cost driven. Inherent to it though, is a lower operational reliability as compared to a four-engine one. While the latter could actually continue its mission with a single engine failure, a twin engine one would have to abort mission and set course for the nearest airfield it can land on. The larger range of a four-engine option would have been useful but the range offered by twin-engine FRA would be adequate for Indian needs as the Eastern and Western seaboards are the areas of interest for the IAF, and not global reach as is the need for the US.
Yet another emerging trend in the FRA is automatic flight refuelling. The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) is collaborating with Airbus in developing this pioneering technology which requires no additional equipment on the receiver aircraft and is intended to reduce refuelling boom operator workload, improve safety and optimise the rate of flight refuelling under operational conditions. Airbus has begun work towards introducing the system on the current production A-330 MRTT and, should India select this platform, the operational benefit could be enormous.
The biggest bane of the IAF’s aircraft acquisition endeavours has been the inordinate delays in the selection process followed by abrupt dismissal of the final shortlist by the government for reasons that do not seem justified on merits of the case. The MMRCA story and two previous FRA RFPs also conform to this pattern. One hopes that this time around, the FRA RFP is followed through to a logical conclusion and at least six new FRAs are added to the IAF’s current fleet to meet its future operational requirements.