New Delhi: The Indian Air Force signed a contract worth about Rs 300 crore with a French private firm on 31 August for the purchase of phased-out Mirage 2000 aircraft to be used as ‘Christmas trees’ for spares.
The French Air Force has fully phased out Mirage 2000s in favour of the Rafale, but India currently has a fleet of 50 Mirages still in service. This is the second deal the country has signed in the last one year to ensure spares for them — sources said the IAF had last year also signed an agreement with the French Air Force for supplying 16 phased-out Mirages, whose delivery was completed this year.
Nearly half the Mirage fleet in India has gone through an extensive upgrade, increasing the aircraft’s life-cycle. But the upgrade process is slow. Upgrades mean that India’s Mirages will fly for at least another decade. And hence, a need was felt to ensure that there are enough spares in supply for the aircraft.
“Slowly, the Mirages are being phased out by countries which were using them. Production of spares will decrease over time, and eventually, they will have to be produced especially for us. This means that the cost will rise significantly, and hence, steps are being taken to ensure that we have spares in supply,” a source in the defence and security establishment told ThePrint.
Sources made it clear that contrary to certain reports, the steps taken by the IAF are “for supporting the existing fleet and improving availability”, and not for adding to the inventory of India’s Mirage 2000 fleet. “The deal is not for aircraft which can be flown,” a second source said.
Explaining the thinking behind the 31 August deal, sources said the Mirages purchased will come in containers as knocked-down versions.
“There are parts of an aircraft which are used till breakdown; for example, the wings. If tomorrow any of our aircraft wings develops a crack, the wing from the second-hand aircraft can be used. Similarly, while Indian Mirages have a more powerful engine, 80 per cent of our engine is the same as the original, and hence many parts can be used as well,” a third source said.
Air Marshal Anil Chopra (retd), director general of the Centre of Air Power Studies, welcomed the move.
“It is a brilliant move to buy second-hand or phased-out Mirages to cater to future needs of spare parts. This will ensure that in future, it will not be expensive to maintain an aircraft that is being upgraded, and will be in use with India for at least a decade more,” he told ThePrint.
How Mirage came to India in the 1980s
The IAF might now be working overtime to ensure Mirage spares are not an issue, but it must be noted that India twice missed the opportunity to manufacture the aircraft — once in the 1980s and once in the 2000s.
Sources explained that in 1980, the US decided to sell Pakistan the F-16s, which would have given Islamabad a potent edge over New Delhi when it came to air power. The IAF, along with then-PM Indira Gandhi, zeroed in on the Mirage 2000, which was still at the prototype stage.
The Mirage was reportedly first offered to India in 1979, to scuttle any further purchases of the Anglo-French Jaguar fighter. Unlike the Jaguar, which was selected after proper
evaluation, the Mirage was purchased in almost a single-vendor situation, a move that led to a lot of allegations, just like the deal for 36 Rafale fighters did in 2017. Incidentally, the Mirage and the Rafale both have the same manufacturer, Dassault Aviation.
The talks between India and France were initially for the purchase of 150 Mirages, of which 100 would be manufactured in India by the HAL.
But in late 1982, India went in for 40 aircraft, with an option to order 110 more. One of the reasons for this was pressure by the Soviets, who had suddenly offered their MiG-29. Angad Singh, project coordinator at the Observer Research Foundation, said until that time, “the Russians had attempted to deny even the existence of the MiG-29”.
“They suddenly offered it to India, including licence production. India bought limited quantities of both aircraft, with the thought that domestic production would be decided based on which aircraft was preferred after a few years of in-service evaluation,” Singh said.
The USSR, which was offering the MiG-23ML, switched to the MiG-29, which it had developed as an answer to the US’ F-16. The MiG-29 was evaluated in February 1984 by India, and a contract signed in November 1985.
The training of Indian pilots for the Mirage and the MiG-29 happened almost simultaneously, said Air Marshal Chopra, who brought the first set of seven Mirage 2000 aircraft to India in June 1985.
However, political unrest in the late 1980s and the financial crisis of the 1990s meant that any plans to manufacture either the Mirage 2000 or the MiG-29 were shelved, Angad Singh added.
The original plan for the Mirage 2000 was that the 110 that were ‘optional’ were to be made in India — 45 from kits and 65 from raw materials — and a decision was to be taken by mid-1984. Then, when the Soviets offered the MiG-29, the planned Mirage licence production was put on hold, and then the MiG-29 was contracted about a year later, Singh said.
He added that in 1982, India even paid extra to keep the production option open while waiting to decide.
Fresh attempt to make Mirage in India after Kargil
The Mirage 2000 was showcased in all its glory during the Kargil conflict of 1999, when it was able to fire ‘smart bombs’ — American Paveway laser-guidance kits — to pound enemy positions.
The IAF wanted more fighters, and Dassault Aviation, which was planning to close down its Mirage 2000 production line, offered to transfer it to India.
In September 2000, India ordered 10 more Mirage 2000s, besides the ones that were ordered from time to time to replace those lost in accidents.
The IAF was thrilled with the French offer, because this meant it would be able to get the latest version of the aircraft, known as the Mirage 2000-5.
However, sources said the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA government in power at the time dithered because of past corruption scandals.
By 2004, India had decided to go in for a global tender for the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA), rather than manufacture the Mirage 2000. Two years later, Dassault pulled its Mirage offer, and started pushing for the Rafale instead.
It was only in 2007 that a global Request for Proposal (RFP) was issued, in which the Rafale emerged as the winner in 2012.
(Edited by Shreyas Sharma)