New Delhi, Feb. 26: Defence minister George Fernandes will skip the budget presentation in Parliament and hop-fly to Uzbekistan to take delivery of the first of six IL-78 mid-air refuellers for the Indian Air Force.
Fernandes will fly to Samarkand where the refueller will be ceremoniously delivered via Dubai and Tashkent. He returns on March 2.
For the defence minister to skip the presentation of the budget at a time when there is the possibility of a real cut in allocations is a little surprising.
Sources in the defence ministry said the Uzbek authorities had intimated that one IL-78 mid-air refueller was ready for delivery but the actual handing over was getting delayed because the defence minister had not been able to slot the visit into his schedule. Fernandes has now found time for the ceremony when it was least expected during the Union budget presentation.
The ministry had earlier said Fernandes would attend the ceremony in which two of the six refuellers would be delivered under a contract worth Rs 800 crore signed in 2001. The sources said the Uzbek authorities have now informed that the deliveries would be according to schedule. The schedule says the second refueller will be ready by March 31 and the other four by the end of 2003.
This is in itself a departure from previous statements on the delivery schedule of the refuellers. In October, the IAF chief, Air Chief Marshal S. Krishnaswamy, had said the first two refuellers will be delivered in January 2003. Last week, too, it was said that two refuellers are ready to be delivered but there was delay because the defence minister had not been able to find the time.
Normally, deliveries of such strategic equipment for military purposes involving so large a transaction would not be rescheduled on such a flimsy ground as scheduling a ceremony. A disruption in delivery schedules can imply a slippage in production or in payment.
Fernandes will be accompanied on the special flight that is taking a circuitous route by the air force vice chief, Air Marshal M. McMahon, and the assistant chief of air staff (operational concepts and doctrines), Air Vice-Marshal Raj Kumar. An IAF crew has been stationed in Uzbekistan for the past week to fly the refueller to India.
The refueller will at first be stationed in the IAF transport base at Agra and will later be moved to Nagpur after a full squadron of six is formed.
Mid-air refuellers have been a demand of air headquarters since the IAF decided to buttress its operational doctrine with strategic depth. The IAFs Mirage 2000s of which it has two squadrons the Sukhoi 30 and Sukhoi 30Mki multi-role fighters and the Jaguar deep penetration strike aircraft have been configured to refuel in mid-air.
Mid-air refuelling will allow fighter aircraft to be stationed at bases 3,000 km away from the border during operational sorties. A refueller will also enable the aircraft to carry more weaponry as payload and do-away with the burden of additional fuel tanks.
Earlier this month, the two Mirage 2000 squadrons of the IAF based in Gwalior conducted joint exercises with the French air force. The French Mirages were accompanied by a KC-135 refueller.