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How HAL's tie-up with Israel could solve IAF's aerial refuelling woes

India first inducted aerial tankers nearly 20 years ago

iai tanker A Boeing 767 tanker that was converted by IAI | IAI

 Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) announced on Wednesday it had signed a memorandum of understanding with Israel's Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) to develop multi-mission tanker transport (MMTT) aircraft that can refuel other jets mid-air.

In a press release, HAL said the MoU envisages the conversion of civil (passenger) aircraft to a configuration that allows it to undertake both aerial refuelling and cargo and transport roles.

HAL said the partnership would provide India's defence ecosystem with “new capabilities and cost-effective solutions” in the market. HAL also revealed the scope of the MoU also covers converting transport aircraft to freighter roles.

Boaz Levy, IAI CEO, said the company was proud to bring its “best value” MMTT solution to India, while utilising “local resources to manufacture and market the platform”. Levy also reiterated support for the Make-in-India programme.

Hunt for aerial refuellers in 3rd decade

Aerial refuellers are typically large transport jets like the Boeing 707, Boeing 767 or Airbus A330 that are equipped to refuel fighters, patrol aircraft, bombers and a range of aircraft in mid-air. Aerial refuellers have been an integral part of major armed forces for over 50 years now. The additional range they provide to aircraft improves a military's combat capability by not only enabling jets to attack targets further away, but also by reducing need to land and refuel in vulnerable airbases.

The Indian Air Force inducted its first refuelling aircraft in 2003 when it took delivery of the first of six Russian-built Il-78 aircraft. The Il-78 is a version of the Soviet-era IL-76 transport jet. But concerns over the aircraft's serviceability emerged soon and by 2006-2007, the Indian Air Force started looking around for a replacement. The Indian Air Force twice floated tenders to purchase a new aerial refuelling tanker and twice a variant of the Airbus A330 was selected.

The A330 MRTT (multirole tanker transport) is a derivative of the popular twin-engine Airbus A330 passenger jet, which boasts of long range. While the A330 MRTT had a higher cost than the IL-78, it was a newer design, having lower operating costs on account of having two engines. The Russian jet has four engines.

Though it was selected twice, the A330 MRTT was never purchased due to concerns over cost. In 2019, the Indian Air Force indicated it was looking to restart the process to buy aerial refuellers again.

The used market solution

While the A330 MRTT and Il-78 are effectively new aircraft modified into aerial refuellers, IAI has been in the business of converting old airframes for the role. The company claims to have converted dozens of aircraft for air-to-air refuelling missions for “more than 12 customers worldwide”.

IAI has advertised the capability to convert used Boeing 767 jets for the tanker role by outfitting the aircraft with dedicated systems to store and transfer jet fuel.

The presence in the international market of hundreds of older Boeing 767 and Airbus A330 jets, which still have decades of airframe life left, presents a range of affordable options for countries seeking aerial refuelling capabilities. Aerial refuellers typically serve several decades. For example, the last of the KC-135 tankers still operated by the US Air Force were built in the mid-1960s.

Colombia uses a converted Boeing 767 refueller brought from Israel. The Brazilian Air Force had also chosen a Boeing 767 solution from Israel in 2013, but has not signed a contract.


IAI offers the Boeing 767 with two types of refuelling systems: The 'probe and drogue' and the 'flying boom'. The probe and drogue system is used by the Indian Air Force's Il-78. The Flying Boom, on the other hand, is predominantly used by US-designed aircraft and allows for transfer of larger volumes of fuel in shorter periods of time. Aircraft like the P-8I maritime patrol jets of the Indian Navy and C-17 heavy transport jets of the Indian Air Force can only be refuelled via flying boom.

Israeli media reported in the past Boeing would not grant IAI permits to convert planes built by it for the tanker role. This has been attributed to IAI being a possible competitor to the Boeing KC-46, a purpose-built Boeing 767 tanker that is entering service.

In 2018, Globes, an Israeli media outlet, reported “The KC-46 costs $250-300 million, whereas IAI is offering its converted aircraft for $150 million, with no significant shortfall in capacity and performance.”

Given its tight budget, the Indian Air Force had previously indicated it could consider leasing aerial refuellers. The tie-up between IAI and HAL could provide the Indian Air Force with an economical alternative.

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