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India to convert passenger aircraft into fuel tankers, to bridge critical mid-air refuelling gap

India currently uses six Russian IIyushin-78 tankers, first inducted in 2003, but they are facing maintenance and serviceability issues.

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New Delhi: After years of trying to buy mid-air refuellers for its military, India is now looking to convert existing Boeing 767 passenger aircraft into tankers. 

Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) has entered into an MoU with Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) to convert civil (passenger) aircraft into multi-mission tanker transport (MMTT) aircraft in India, the state-run aviation firm announced Wednesday.

Under the pact, HAL will convert civil aircraft into mid-air refuelling aircraft with cargo and transport capabilities.

Sources told ThePrint that the contract pertains to converting the Boeing 767 passenger aircraft, which is also used by the Italian and Japanese militaries.

Boeing has a specialised tanker called KC-46 Pegasus, which is a variant of Boeing 767. The conversion of passenger aircraft into cargo and tankers has been a lucrative business for IAI, which has emerged as a key player in this business.

Mid-air refuelling has been a critical capability gap for the IAF. This technology gives a fighter jet the ability to cover enhanced distances without having to land to refuel.

India currently uses six Russian IIyushin-78 tankers, first inducted in 2003, but they are facing maintenance and serviceability issues. 

There have been efforts under way to procure new mid-air refuellers, with both Boeing and Airbus in contention. 

India has been in talks with France to lease one A330 multi-role tanker transport (MRTT) from the French Air Force for training purposes under a government-to-government deal. 

The sources said leasing, for a limited period, is still being looked at, but there are no specialised tankers that will be bought. 

“It is much cheaper to convert passenger aircraft into tankers rather than buy new ones,” a source said.

6 aircraft to be converted 

India, the sources added, is looking at converting at least six aircraft into tankers.

The development is a setback to Airbus, which had emerged as the frontrunner in the IAF’s plans to get mid-air refuellers.

Sources said while the contract in question is between HAL and IAI, Boeing will be a key component to any future programme to convert passenger aircraft into tankers since they are the original equipment manufacturer (OEM). 

Lohia Aerospace Systems, part of the Lohia Group, in Uttar Pradesh’s Kanpur, has a tie-up with the IAI through its Israeli subsidiary Light and Strong Ltd, which specialises in production of aerospace and military carbon-fibre and glass-fibre composite components.

(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)


Also Read: India looks to lease mid-air refueller from French Air Force for training, more could follow


 

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