Faced with huge delays in clinching new fighter projects even as it grapples with fast-eroding air combat power, IAF finally has some reason to cheer. The force will get its first two upgraded Mirage-2000 fighters with new avionics and weapons this week.
The defence ministry says France will hand over the two “almost new” Mirage fighters to the project management teams of IAF and Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL) on March 25. “Our teams are in Istres to take the delivery. The next two jets will be upgraded by HAL in India with French assistance,” said an official.
The remaining 47 Mirages, which were first inducted by India in the mid-1980s, will then be progressively souped up by HAL with technology transfer from France under the overall Rs 17,547 crore program finalized in 2011-2012.
“The upgraded Mirages have been stripped down and virtually re-built with state-of-the-art avionics, radars, mission computers, glass cockpits, helmet-mounted displays, electronic warfare suites and long-range missiles. IAF will be able to operate them for another 15-20 years,” the official added.
India has gone in for a mix of upgrades and inductions like Sukhoi-30MKIs – IAF has till now inducted 200 of the 272 Russian fighters contracted for over $12 billion — to maintain its operational readiness against China and Pakistan.
But it continues to take a big hit with the delay in new fighter projects, even as the obsolete MiG fleets are being progressively retired. As reported earlier by TOI, both the $20 billion MMRCA (medium multi-role combat aircraft) project for 126 French Rafale fighters and the $25 billion one for 127 Russian FGFA (fifth-generation fighter aircraft) are still nowhere near being clinched.
“The indigenous Tejas light combat aircraft project is also running years behind schedule. Numbers do eventually matter. IAF should ideally have 44 fighter squadrons, instead of the 34 it is currently has,” said an officer.
The Mirage upgrade project, under which India has inked two separate contracts, itself has faced flak for being so expensive. The first upgrade program was finalized at Rs 10,947 crore with French companies Dassault Aviation (aircraft manufacturer) and Thales (weapons systems integrator) in July 2011.
The second Rs 6,600 crore contract for 490 advanced fire-and-forget MICA (interception and aerial combat missiles) systems to arm the Mirages was finalized with French armament major MBDA in early-2012.
In effect, each upgraded Mirage will cost Rs 345 crore. This when the last batch of Mirages bought by India in 2000 cost Rs 133 crore apiece. Moreover, it will take HAL almost a decade to upgrade all the fighters.