The Cabinet Committee on Security on Wednesday approved the long delayed $2.5 billion deal (Rs 11,250 crore) for upgrading 51 Mirage 2000 fighter planes, more than four years after the Indian Air Force recommended an overhaul.
French defence firms Dassault Aviation (aircraft manufacturer), Thales (electronic systems company) and MBDA (missile systems group) will equip the fighters with new avionics, missiles, radars, electronic warfare suites, glass cockpits and helmet-mounted displays sensors.
The air force expects the upgrade programme --- India’s costliest ever --- to extend the life of the French-origin multi-role fighters by 20 years. Price negotiations were one of the factors holding up the deal.
The air force inducted the fighters in mid-1980s.
The upgrade includes arming the fighters with MBDA’s MICA air-to-air missiles for beyond visual range capability. The Mirage 2000 overhaul is a critical programme for the air force that has been hamstrung by depleting combat potential --- its fighter squadron strength stands at around 34 compared to the sanctioned 39 and half.
Dassault Aviation is also angling for the air force’s $10.2-billion (Rs 45,900 crore) tender for 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA), India's biggest military contract.
The race has narrowed down to Dassault Aviation’s Rafale and Eurofighter Typhoon (a consortium of British, German, Spanish and Italian companies), after the defence ministry turned down the bids of Boeing (F/A-18 Super Hornet), Lockheed Martin (F-16 Super Viper), Saab (Gripen) and Russian Aircraft Corporation's MiG-35.
The lowest bidder will secure the bitterly fought contract.
In an interview to HT in June, air force chief Air Chief Marshal PV Naik had warned that the IAF could lose its combat edge over rivals in the neighbourhood in the next 10 years if it failed to keep pace with its modernisation targets.
He had said China had embarked on a “modernisation spree” and there had been “considerable development” of infrastructure and “induction of assets across India’s northern and eastern borders.”
The Mirage upgrade deal is the second big-ticket contract secured by France --- six Scorpene submarines are being built at the Mumbai-based Mazagon Dock Limited with transfer of technology from French firm DCNS, under a Rs 18,798-crore programme called Project 75.
Former IAF chief Air Chief Marshal Fali Major said, “The Mirage 2000 is the most important aircraft in the air force’s fleet after the Sukhoi-30. The upgrade is crucial as we are still a few years away from inducting the MMRCA and the light combat aircraft.”