New Delhi: After sealing up the C-295 aircraft deal, first of which will be delivered next month, the Indian Air Force (IAF) has set its sight on a mega transport aircraft deal — Medium Transport Aircraft (MTA).
Under the proposed deal, the IAF is seeking to procure anywhere between 40-80 aircraft that will seek to replace the old workhorses of the force — AN-32s and, possibly, the IL-76s.
As per a Request for Information (RFI) issued by the IAF in December 2022, the force is looking at an aircraft with a load carrying capacity of 18-27 tonnes.
The aircraft should also be able to undertake operations in high altitude and be able to land and take off in unprepared runways like India’s Advanced Landing Ground (ALGs) in Ladakh and the Northeast.
This is part of the IAF’s plan to have a wide range of transport aircraft that are capable of lifting different kinds of equipment and different tonnage for humanitarian and special group operations.
Sources in the defence and security establishment told ThePrint that the ongoing crisis in Eastern Ladakh has shown how transport aircraft are the backbone of any military movement.
Immediately after the Galwan clash in 2020, India had pressed into action its fleet of military transport aircraft which ferried in over 68,000 additional troops along with nearly 90 tanks and over 300 infantry combat vehicles into the icy heights of Ladakh.
India currently operates a wide range of transport aircraft — from the small Avros to the AN 32s, C-130Js and the bigger IL 76s and C-17s.
The oldest of them, the Avros, are being replaced by the Airbus’ C-295 planes with a capacity of 9 tonnes.
India will get the first of its 56 C-295s next month. While 16 are being delivered in flyaway condition from Spain, 40 are being built in India in partnership with TATA.
So, while the Avros are being replaced, the next focus will be on replacing the upgraded AN-32s, about 100 in numbers, which will start getting phased out from 2030-32 onwards.
Also, the IL-76s, six of which are operated by the IAF, have entered its last stage of life cycle after the procurement during 1985-1989.
The IAF is now seeking to procure the MTA, which was originally thought of as a joint developmental project with Russia.
It was in 2012 that both countries signed a pact for the co-development of the aircraft under which India would have bought 45 aircraft while Russia around 100. However, the deal was scrapped in 2016 after both countries failed to come to an agreement with regard to engine and design of the aircraft.
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Genesis of the new project
With the C-295 deal done, the IAF shifted its focus back to the MTA programme.
It was in December 2022 that the IAF issued an RFI to foreign original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) for an aircraft having a load carrying capacity of 18-27 tonnes.
RFI is the first stage of formal interactions with an OEM and it is only after this that the force firms up its plans and approaches the Defence Ministry for clearances.
In its RFI, the IAF had also sought a rough order of magnitude (ROM) cost of aircraft and associated equipment’ for a batch of 40, 60, and 80 aircraft.
The companies were also asked to send in their information regarding the scope of technology transfer, ways to enhance indigenisation, capability to ensure indigenous manufacture of systems, subsystems, components and spares and for making India a regional or global hub for MRO.
A total of three companies responded to the RFI — US’s Lockheed Martin, Brazil’s Embraer and Europe’s Airbus.
While Lockheed has offered its C- 130 aircraft, 12 of which are already in use with the IAF, Embraer has offered its latest C-390 Millennium, and Airbus its A-400 M.
And this is where the deal gets tricky, because all the three aircraft are very different from each other, not just in terms of lift and operational capabilities but also in terms of engines.
While both the C-130 and the A-400 M are turboprop, the C-390 has the jet engine.
Moreover, while the C-130 J just meets the minimum requirement with its airlift capacity of about 20 tonnes, the C-390 meets the upper requirement mentioned by the IAF with its load carrying capacity of 26 tonnes. The A-400 M goes beyond the specified requirement with its capacity of 37 tonnes.
While it was initially believed that the C-295 could eventually replace the An-32s which has similar load carrying capacity, the IAF’s technical requirements for the MTA outnumbers the Airbus-TATA product.
According to sources, another issue that needs to be looked into is the flying capacity of the aircraft. While the C-130 J of the IAF has landed at Advanced Landing Ground in Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO), which is at 17,700 feet, the certified landing of the Embraer aircraft is only 14,000 feet.
Embraer officials argue that the aircraft is capable of landing at DBO but note that they are yet to practically showcase the landing yet.
Another problem is that the IAF will have to make up its mind of the replacement for the IL 76s which have a tonnage capacity of about 50 tonnes.
The IAF operates six of these aircraft with not all being operational at the same time because of severe servicing issues.
The IAF is looking at what would be the best tonnage that can cater to the requirement of various load carrying capacities without compromising the operational capabilities like landing in ALGs.
Roberto Martinez, Airbus’ A400M marketing manager had told a group of reporters, which ThePrint was part of, in July in Spain that the A 400M can land onto short and unpaved airstrips where IL-76 and C-17 cannot.
Airbus’s argument against its competition in the MTA programme is that its aircraft can carry heavy loads over longer distances and can fly up to a maximum altitude of 40,000 feet.
The IAF will also have to take into account the future acquisitions planned by the Army including the light tank that it is planning to procure, having a weight of about 25 tonnes.
While larger aircraft like the C-17s can easily airlift the tanks, it cannot land at ALGs.
Sources said that if the plan is to procure 40-80 aircraft, they have to be load-carrying capable of various levels with ability to operate and land at higher altitudes and will have to sit somewhere in between the larger C-17s and the C-295.
(Edited by Zinnia Ray Chaudhuri)
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