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IAF refueller race

New Delhi, Jan. 20: A race to sell air-to-air tankers to the Indian Air Force for about Rs 6,000 crore that was cancelled last year is set for a re-run with a European and a Russian competitor in the fray after the US’s Boeing has withdrawn.

European aviation company Airbus Military sources said today that they had re-bid for the contract last week after the global tender was issued in September last year.

Russian manufacturer Ilyushin is the only other competitor with the Il-78 aircraft and believes it has an edge because six of the aircraft are already in the IAF. The IAF — and even other air forces — use mid-air tankers to refuel combat jets in flight, save time and multiply their missions.

Fighter aircraft do not necessarily have to return to base to refuel for additional sorties. Refuellers also make it possible for combat jets to carry more load — bombs, for example — for their missions.

The IAF’s tanker aircraft expansion programme is already behind schedule by three years and the cancellation last year delayed it further.

But the IAF’s decision to go in for a global competition signalled its dissatisfaction with Moscow’s after-sales service.

Boeing, which had at first said it would compete, has withdrawn from the race ostensibly because its new generation of mid-air tankers would be fully operational only if and when it gets an order for 179 refuellers from the US Air Force.

The mid-air refueller squadron of the IAF now comprises six Il-78 tankers. The IAF selected the Airbus 330 MRTT (multi-role transport tanker) in January last year but the competition was cancelled despite its choice.

Defence sources said the finance ministry had objected to the cost of about $1.5 billion for the MRTT.

This time the defence ministry is understood to have gone in for a different model to calculate the price that aims to take into account the expenses incurred on not just buying but also on maintaining the aircraft. It is likely that even this irked the Russians whose aircraft were cheaper off the shelf but whose spares and cost of maintenance were higher.

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