Boeing in fray for Indian Air Force’s tanker contest - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Tuesday 15 November 2016

Boeing in fray for Indian Air Force’s tanker contest

By Ajai Shukla
Everett, USA
Business Standard, 16th Nov 16

The Indian Air Force’s (IAF’s) withdrawal of a tender earlier this year for the $2 billion purchase of six multi-role tanker transport (MRTT) aircraft has set the stage for the entry of Boeing into this contest. The American company had not responded to two earlier tenders, since it did not have a suitable aircraft to field.

Now, having developed a brand new MRTT for the US Air Force (USAF), Boeing is poised to compete with Airbus and Ilyushin, the two vendors who have vied for the IAF order for a decade.

An earlier IAF tender, floated in 2006, attracted bids from Airbus, Spain, which offered a modified Airbus 330-200 aircraft; and from Russia’s Ilyushin, which offered the Ilyushin-78 tanker --- six of which were already in the IAF since 2003-04.

Yet, despite successive IAF chiefs emphasising the urgency of buying tankers quickly, that tender was withdrawn in 2010. A second tender, issued by the IAF soon after, was withdrawn in May.

The reason for withdrawal was a conflict between “procurement cost” and “life cycle cost”. The Russian tanker was cheaper to buy; but the Spanish tanker worked out cheaper when life cycle costs were evaluated --- considering not just the acquisition cost, but also the cost of operation, maintenance and spare parts over a service life of 30-40 years.

Tankers are valuable force multipliers for air forces that operate combat aircraft for long distances. Mid-air refuelling almost doubles the capability of fighters. Refuelling them mid-mission saves a trip back to base, and a landing and take-off.

At Everett, outside Seattle, USA, where Boeing builds commercial airliners in the world’s largest building --- a hangar one kilometre long and half a kilometre wide --- the first few KC-46A Pegasus tankers are being built on the airframe of the long-haul Boeing 767-200 airliner. The USAF has already ordered 179 KC-46A, and that order would increase incrementally to 400 or so, as the USAF’s vintage KC-135 --- built on the Boeing 707 airframe and already over half a century old --- are progressively retired.

In contrast, the Airbus 330 MRTT has just 51 tankers on order. Boeing believes its economy of scale would create an unbeatable cost advantage.

Says Glenn Hanbey, the Pegasus marketing head: “The KC-46A is not just a civil airliner that can carry extra fuel. It has been developed as a military aircraft, to the demanding specifications of the USAF.”

Hanbey is referring to the Airbus 330 MRTT, which carries more fuel than the KC-46A Pegasus --- 111 tonnes, as against 96 tonnes --- but which remains in many respects a civilian airliner that retains commercial-style seating inside for 291 passengers.

In contrast, the KC-46A Pegasus has military style “palletised” seating that can be quickly bolted on for up to 160 passengers. In a medical evacuation role, it can carry 54 stretchers with patients, along with on-board emergency oxygen. To permit large cargo loads, the Pegasus has giant side doors, the size of those on the C-17 Globemaster III cargo plane.

A key feature of the KC-46A is its tanker-specific avionics, with the twin-pilot cockpit fitted with state-of-the-art displays developed for the 787 Dreamliner. In accordance with USAF demands, the “boom operator”, who operates the attachment that protrudes from the tail of the Pegasus and pumps fuel at 1,200 gallons per minute into the aircraft being refuelled, has a three-dimensional view of the operation from seven cameras that look to the rear. The pilots too view the operation, allowing them to position their tanker aircraft suitably.

For now, the Airbus 330 MRTT enjoys a first-mover advantage, having already logged orders from the air forces of Australia (seven tankers), United Kingdom (14) France (nine), Saudi Arabia (seven), The Netherlands (two), Singapore (six), South Korea (four) and UAE (three).

But Pratyush Kumar, Boeing’s chief in India argues: “Those orders were placed when the KC-46A hadn’t entered service. Now, it provides India an additional option --- one that consumes 30 per cent less fuel, is 20 per cent cheaper to operate, and that is derived from an aircraft with a despatch reliability rate of 99.7 per cent.”

(Broadsword was in the US at the invitation of The Boeing Company)


  1. Just make up your minds and buy it already. Between the a330mrtt & KC46a there is no wrong choice. Both are awesome.

    Even better would be to convert the 14-17 il76 already in service into multi role refuelers as we have c17 for heavy strategic airlift already.

  2. Such articles are good for a regular news paper.
    In a specialist defence blog , there needs to be value by having comparative quantative & qualitative table of Boeing, airbus & il-76 tankers.
    One. Quantative example would spares and service expertise. If india operates a330, in a warlike situation it can commandeer such civilian infrastructure . It helps . We need to be more strategic in our thought process.
    The same was the problem in your last post on F-18 : what extra bang we get by having two engine fighters, when we already have su & ordered Rafales. All of you were screaming with 120+ Rafale , IAF would be top heavy , suck out funds from defence funds and it needed a balance on having adequate light aircraft .

    In today's situation, instead of speaking all these toys , it is more important to have posts on hard matter : assault rifles, bullet proof jackets, artillery etc.
    These will make a far more impact in our current neighborhood .

  3. Boom operator indeed. Why would WE care ? None of the planes we operate or will EVER operate (including the F16 if we get it) will be boom capable. We operate the probe and drogue system. We are buying a lot of extra stuff if we buy the Boeing option.

    The best is just get A tanker. Follow what the Brits did. Buy up old A310s with lot of airframe lives left in them and modify fully to a tanker. Will work out far cheaper than a new build airframe and even training and operating costs will be just a fraction of a new build.

  4. Hello Ajai, I am pretty sure IAF will go for KC-46 as that is the reason they cancelled the existing tender. also price is a big plus for not going for A330 and for the same price IAF may get 1 or 2 more tankers. all in all Boeing has long history of making tankers and going by past contracts they got from IAF they will certainly get this order. time will tell.

  5. The KC-46 can do both boom and drogue refuelling. So can the MRTT. We have the C-17s and P-8s that can accept booms, not to mention other possible future assets. Books can transfer a greater volume of fuel in a given time than drogues, which is why the US uses them, so there are advantages.

  6. If one considers the % loss of capacity with KC-46 compared to A330, the "savings" figures quoted by the Boeing person do not appear to be that impressive. Probably the reason A330 was selected by South Korea.

    @kalam - IAF wants something other than IL because of the availability record. I can understand upgrading existing ILs but putting more eggs in that basket could give us a basket case. Agree with you first sentence completely.

    - Manne


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