Thursday, 26 May 2011

The IAF dilemma: To Upgrade Mirage Or Not To

The Indian Air Force has a dilemma: should it go ahead and upgrade it’s 51-strong Mirage fleet or purchase new fighters for Mirages’ specific role? Talks between the Ministry of Defence and Mirage’s French manufacturer Dassault are in the final stage and a decision is expected soon.

Upgrade of the French Dassault M2000 fighter aircraft would cost a whopping Rs 14,400 crore but it does not include the cost of procuring new weaponry worth Rs 80 crore.

If the Defence Ministry and the manufacturer sign the agreement, Dassault will supply four upgraded aircraft and kits to upgrade the remaining 47 aircraft to Hindustan Aeronautics Limited. Roughly Rs 4,500 crore is to be spent by HAL on the upgrade. It will also charge nearly Rs 900 crore for the furnished items.

A section of the IAF top brass feels that the upgrade cost is too high as the officers say that buying a new fighter would work out cheaper.

“Avionics and weaponry are complementary but their capabilities don’t always match. The upgrade process is very complicated and thorough and has to be very convincing for it to be approved,” said Air Marshal (retired) D. Keeler - hero of the 1965 and 1971 Indo-Pak wars. Mirage fighters were inducted in the IAF during Keeler’s tenure in the mid-eighties. “Upgradation is always planned on the future lifespan of the airframe and engines,” he added.

New weapons required to be fitted in the proposed upgraded aircraft include BVR (RF) MICA missiles, IR MICA missiles, conventional weapons and smart guided weapons with standoff capabilities, and air-to-surface weapons.

Incidentally, Dassault fighter Rafale has been shortlisted along with Eurofighter Typhoon in the over $10.5 billion deal for 126 Medium Multi Role-Combat Aircraft (MMRCA). Two American, one Swedish and one Russian rival firm are out of the race.

The Eurofighter is said to having an edge over Rafale. Dassault sees this as a ‘win-win situation’: If it fails to get the MMRCA deal, it is confident of clinching the Mirage upgrade deal. Purchasing new Mirages is not an option now as France has closed the production line, presumably to avoid competition between Mirage 2000 and the Rafale. When last produced in 2007, the estimated price of a Mirage 2000-09 was Rs 30-35 million.

The first batch of 40 Mirage aircraft was delivered during 1986-87, the second batch of nine during 1988-89 and the third batch of 10 aircraft during 2003-04. Of these 59 aircraft, only 51 are now in the fleet. The rest have been lost.

The proposal is to upgrade all 51 aircraft to extend their operational life and update their capability. The ‘cardinal points’ of the proposal include: no airframe modifications, no changes to major aircraft systems, no modification to equipment bays, limited cockpit modifications, minimum retrofit line modification facilities/activities, and, most significantly, it does not cover the cost of supply of weapons.

As the purpose of the upgrade is to bring the IAF’s Mirage 2000 fleet up to the standard of the Mirage 2000-5 Mk2, which is used by the French and sold as the Mirage 2000-09, would it not be a better option to ascertain whether any country wants to sell some or all of its inventory at a more competitive cost than that represented by the upgrade, questions the anti-upgrade lobby within the IAF.

India had reportedly talked to Qatar, which was looking to sell its Mirage 2000-09 fleet of 12 aircraft. The talks failed as Qatar’s price expectations could not be met. Some senior officers are of the view that this setback does not preclude the attempt to identify another source, provided that the price is reasonable and that there is sufficient service life remaining to justify the acquisition.

India must negotiate and conclude contracts for the upgrade of Mirage fighters and procurement of weapons simultaneously, advise senior IAF officers. Otherwise, they warn, weapon manufacturers will dictate their ‘expensive terms’ later.

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