Indian defence planners have breathed a sigh of relief as the first two Indian Air Force (IAF) Mirage 2000 fighters being upgraded in France were handed over by Dassault and Thales to India's ambassador in Paris, Arun Singh.
In July 2011, IAF signed a Rs 10,947-crore contract to upgrade its entire fleet of 51 Mirage 2000 fighters. This would extend the life of the ageing fighters - acquired in the late '70s and early '80s to counter Pakistan's new F-16s - by another 15 years.
The upgraded fighters are designated Mirage 2000I, while the twin-seat trainer version is designated Mirage 2000TI.
With the Rafale contract in limbo, the upgrade of IAF's Mirage 2000 and Jaguar fighters has become vitally important. IAF has just 35 squadrons now (with 16 operational fighters and two trainer aircraft in each), against the 42 squadrons authorised for defending the Pakistan and China borders.
The two fighters delivered on Wednesday are likely to arrive in India in early April and join their respective squadrons. Two Gwalior-based IAF squadrons currently fly the Mirage-2000: Number 1 Squadron (Tigers), and Number 7 Squadron (Battle Axes). Meanwhile, HAL is upgrading the next two Mirage 2000s at its Bengaluru facility, with Dassault and Thales providing "on-the-job training". Dassault builds the airframe of the Mirage 2000, while Thales provides most of the avionics.
Business Standard toured the Mirage facility in HAL in January, and learned that the third and fourth upgraded fighter would be completed in September and November 2015 respectively. There are 120-130 technicians working in HAL's Mirage 2000 upgrade and overhaul facility in Bengaluru.
HAL would upgrade the remaining 47 Mirage 2000s without assistance, fitting in upgrade kits provided by Dassault and Thales. This would take 7-10 years.
While the upgrade does not involve fitting a new engine, it includes extensive avionics upgrades. Thales is providing a new radar, mission computer and electronic warfare suite, said the French vendors in a statement today. In place of the old analogue instruments in the cockpit, the pilots will now have an "all-glass cockpit", with video displays of flight parameters and weapons aiming and operation. They will also have helmet-mounted sights, which allow pilots to aim weapons at targets merely by looking at them.
In a linked contract, the IAF has procured 490 MICA "beyond visual range" missiles from French company, MBDA, for Rs 6,600 crore.
The IAF places high confidence in its Mirage 2000, which have not just provided high serviceability rates but were also modified for delivering "precision-guided munitions", or laser-guided smart bombs, during the Kargil conflict in 1999.
Alongside the upgrade, HAL is simultaneously overhauling its entire Mirage 2000 fleet, a year-long procedure that each fighter undergoes after flying 2000 hours or 13 years, whichever happens first. The entire Mirage 2000 fleet underwent a first round of overhaul from 1991-94. The second overhaul round began in 2009.
"We have developed a high degree of expertise in maintaining, overhauling and now upgrading the Mirage 2000," said a HAL line manager.