Trials in support of the Indian Air Force's procurement of six multi-role tanker transports for around $2 billion (around Rs 10,000 crore) involving Europe's EADS and Russia's Rosonboronexport have been completed recently and the rival commercial bids are expected to be opened early in the new year.
Official sources said the trials featuring the EADS-built Airbus Military A 330 MRTT and the Russian Ilyushin IL-78 -- of which the IAF had acquired six in 2004 -- concluded in Gwalior last month.
The rival tankers displayed their ability in re-fuelling frontline IAF fighters like Su-30MKI's, Mirage 2000H and MiG-29s' whose operational range they would extend significantly for out-of-area contingency operations once inducted into service.
This capability assessment in Gwalior followed trials in Spain and Russia in July after the tender was re-issued in September 2010, nine months after a similar MRTT contract featuring the same two tankers for around $1.06 billion (around Rs 5,300 crore) was terminated.
US' Boeing, that was also included in the September 2010 request for proposal, opted not to compete for the tender.
Entreaties by the IAF -- which desperately needs mid-air refuellers for its enhanced regional role -- to Defence Minister A K Antony not to cancel the MRTT deal following finance ministry objections to the A-330's 'inordinately' high cost were summarily overruled.
At the time Antony had maintained that the ministry of defence had sent the tanker contract to the finance ministry three times for clearance but to no avail.
Antony declared that the finance ministry had categorically declared that it would not support the MTRR import in the Cabinet Committee on Security whose clearance was mandatory ahead of the procurement.
At the time the finance ministry had stated that since the IAF already operated an IL-78 fleet, an add-on order for this cheaper platform was preferred.
Under successive editions of India's Defence Procurement Procedures only the lowest bid -- or L1 -- is deemed acceptable for purchase.
But in pressing their preference for the A-330 the IAF is believed to have argued that the MRTTs life cycle cost had not been taken into account to make it more competitive in the long run.
Former Air Chief Marshal Fali H Major too had publicly declared several years ago that the A-330 MRTT "scores above the IL 78" but that the final procurement decision would be the governments.
ACM Major also conceded that the IL-78 under evaluation had failed in meeting the IAF's requirements. The IAF maintained that the A 330 MRTT was not only technologically superior to the Il- 78's but also more fuel efficient.
Besides, many of its systems could be overhauled locally as several domestic airlines operated various Airbus models, thereby reducing its long term cost.
By opting for the A 330 MRTTs the IAF was also expressing its long-standing discontent with Russian equipment and attempting to diversify its predominantly Soviet and Russian hardware. Official sources indicated that life cycle costs would be considered with regard to the new MRTT tender that would take at least two years if not more to conclude following price negotiations.
The IAF's requirement for mid-air tankers is urgent as it acquires 200-300 additional combat aircrafts over the next two decades.