‘Mirage-2000 upgrade will plug India’s combat jet gap’

November 7th, 2008 - 1:23 pm ICT by IANS  

Paris, Nov 7 (IANS) The Indian Air Force (IAF) can address the alarming dip in its operational capabilities by upgrading its fleet of Mirage-2000 fighter jets, even as it evaluates a global tender it has floated for purchasing 126 new combat aircraft, says French electronics major Thales, which is on the verge of inking the upgrade deal.”The upgrade will significantly enhance the IAF’s air potential by extending the operational performance of the Mirage fleet and taking full advantage of the aircraft’s world class capabilities,” Francois Quentin, Thales senior vice president and head of its aerospace division, told a group of visiting Indian journalists here.

“As a result, the IAF will have a coherent platform-system combination for the next 20 years at a significantly lower cost than the acquisition of new-build aircraft with equivalent performance,” Quentin added.

At the same time, another Thales official pointed out that a decision on the upgrade would have to be taken by the end of this year so that the project could begin early 2009, ahead of the parliamentary polls that are due by May but could be advanced to February.

“Our experience, not only with India but with other countries also, has been that if an election comes in the way, a decision on a project like this can be delayed by at least two years,” the official told IANS on condition of anonymity.

This statement acquires significance since the IAF is known to have been considering the upgrade for at least two years but floated a request for proposal (RFP) only in April, to which Thales replied in July. Price negotiations are set to begin later this month.

While Thales was reluctant to state figures given a confidentiality clause, the project is believed to be worth $1.5 billion for upgrading the 51 Mirage-2000s in the IAF fleet to Dash-5 levels. This will give the jets multi-role capability with longer-range radars and fire-and-forget missiles, enabling the aircraft to perform a given mission thanks to greater fuel and weapon-delivery capacities.

The upgrade will involve providing the Mirage-2000, which was first inducted in mid-1980 and of which the IAF now operates 51, a state-of-the-art fly-by-wire digital cockpit and an enhanced weapons-carrying capability.

Under the Thales proposal, the company would deliver the first two aircraft from its facilities in France within 40 months of the signing of the contract, and would simultaneously assist Hindustan Aircraft Limited (HAL) in upgrading another two aircraft in India in the same time frame.

Thereafter, HAL would upgrade one of the remaining 47 aircraft every month.

“The IAF will be further enhanced by the integration of new capabilities,” Pierre-Yves Chaltiec, CEO of Thales Airborne Systems, said.

“These include longer range detection across the spectrum, improved tactical situation awareness, longer range weapon firing against multiple simultaneous targets, weapon stealth and extended operating envelope with the capability to engage ground targets while countering airborne threats,” he added.

“The resulting tactical advantage will allow commanders to commit fewer aircraft while achieving a higher success rate, thanks in particular to greater fuel and weapon-delivery capacities.

“For instance, a typical border protection mission involving two hours on station will require just two upgraded Mirage-2000 aircraft compared with six current aircraft,” Chaltiec said.

The IAF had floated a global tender in September 2007 for 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft in a deal valued at $10 billion. Six jets are in the fray: the US Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet and the Lockheed Martin F-16, the French Dassault Rafale, the Swedish Saab Grippen, the Russian MiG-35 and the Eurofighter Typhoon built by a four-nation European consortium.

The technical bids are currently being evaluated after which all the six aircraft will be put through a rigorous testing process in Bangalore, Jaisalmer and Leh.

The first is meant to gauge the aircraft’s ability to operate in the humid conditions of southern India, the second their effectiveness in the deserts of Rajasthan and the third to study their suitability in the icy Himalayan heights of Ladakh in Jammu and Kashmir.

By the time the evaluation process is complete, the size of the order is likely to rise to around 200 jets, as the IAF, which is down to 32 squadrons from a high of 39 1/2, is expected to see a further depletion of its fleet due to the retirement of some its ageing Soviet-era MiG-21 aircraft. The IAF has a sanctioned strength of 45 squadrons.

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