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Mid-air refueller gives ‘depth’ to air force, life to Uzbek firm

New Delhi, March 3: The Indian Air Force has taken delivery of the first of six aerial refuellers from Uzbekistan in part fulfilment of a deal said to be around Rs 800 crore that has also resuscitated an ailing aircraft company in the former Soviet Russia.

The refueller on an IL-78 platform was flown to Delhi last evening by the crew of a newly-raised squadron and was this morning moved to its temporary base in Agra.

The Indian Air Force spokesman, Squadron Leader Rajesh Dhingra, said the 78 Squadron commanded by Group Captain Sauvik Roy was raised on December 16 — “Kargil Vijay Divas” — last year and is the first to take charge of the “force-multiplier.”

The IL-78 is a variant of the IL-76 transport aircraft that the IAF has in its inventory. The refueller is identified by the Nato code “Midas” and is said to have a payload capacity of more than 45,000 kgs.

The Chlakov Plant in Uzbekistan, which makes the IL-76 and its variants had stopped production of the IL-78 refuellers in 1991. Ten years later, the Indian contract helped revive its production line.

India paid an estimated Rs 100 crore as advance that allowed the plant and the Tashkent Aviation Production Association through which the deal was negotiated to begin building the aircraft.

The IL-78 refuellers saw the largest number of operational sorties during Soviet Russia’s nearly 10-year war on Afghanistan that ended in 1989. The refuellers allowed Soviet fighters to fly from bases deep inside Russian territory non-stop to bomb designated targets and fly back home. Fighters fuelled in mid-flight can carry more weaponry because they can afford to be light on fuel.

The IAF concluded from this experience that a refueller will give it “strategic depth”.

The IAF’s more modern aircraft, such as the Mirage 2000s, Jaguars, Sukhoi 30 and the Sukhoi 30mki have been fitted with refuelling pods.

IAF sources said a second refueller was expected in April and four more by the end of the year.

With a full squadron of six refuellers, each able to carry 36 tonnes of aviation fuel, the IAF top brass believe it will be possible to fly longer Combat Air Patrols (CAPs) and conceal fighters beyond the range of the adversary’s radarscopes.

In an operational scenario, this can allow, for instance, two Mirage multi-role fighter aircraft escorting a couple of Jaguars deep penetration ground-attack aircraft to take-off from Trivandrum, refuel over Madhya Pradesh, bomb or engage targets across the northern or western border, and return to base non-stop.

The induction of refuellers in its inventory places on Air Headquarters additional demands on training pilots and ground crew. Pilots, for instance, will have to be physically and psychologically fit enough to fly long hours and still remain alert for combat inside the confines of cockpits. A French Air Force team that flew to Gwalior for a joint exercise last month had with it a KC-135 refueller. The Mirages in the French team flew non-stop for close to 16 hours on their way to India.

IAF sources said 16 officers and men of the new 78 Squadron had been in training in Uzbekistan.

The refueller was handed over at a ceremony in Tashkent attended by defence minister George Fernandes, who skipped the Union budget presentation, the vice-chief of air staff Air Marshal Mike McMahon and the Assistant Chief of Air Staff (doctrines and planning), Air Vice Marshal Raj Kumar.

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