New Delhi: The nearly USD 2.5 billion plan to upgrade India’s Mirage-2000 fighter aircraft by the end of 2021 is set to miss the deadline, with only half of them having completed the process till now.

The mega contract for the upgrade of 51 Mirage-2000s, which were used during the Balakot air strikes, was signed in 2011, and the idea was to bring the aircraft, bought between 1982-1985, up to date and give them better firepower, new sensors, latest electronic warfare systems and a life-extension.

As part of the plan, Dassault Aviation, the original French manufacturer of the Mirage, was to upgrade two aircraft in France and then two more in India, at the Bengaluru facility of the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). The rest were to be upgraded by the HAL under transfer of technology.

The upgrade includes a new mission computer with higher memory, new radar, advanced navigation and electronic warfare systems, advanced communication and identification systems. The upgraded aircraft are also supposed to undergo a massive upgrade of the cockpit, with two lateral displays, glass cockpits, and helmet-mounted displays.

As of today, only about 50 per cent of the upgrades have been completed, sources in the defence and security establishment said, adding that the program will take another 2-3 years to finish

What Led To The Delay

According to the plan, the first 16 aircraft, including the four manufactured by Dassault Aviation with help from Thales, were to be delivered with Initial Operational Clearance (IOC) status. The remaining 35 were to come with Final Operational Clearance (FOC) status.

HAL sources said a fatal accident in February 2019 involving an upgraded Mirage during a test flight, and the subsequent Covid-19 pandemic led to the delay.

The sources added the IAF delayed the delivery of overhauled engines and certain other systems, contributing to the delay. The IAF, meanwhile, says there were issues with the FOC variant, as they were not fully satisfied with certain integration of new systems.

Incidentally, the maiden flight of the first upgraded Mirage-2000 was completed successfully by Dassault Aviation on 5 October 2013, following a two-year development phase.

This phase included integration of new systems provided by Thales, including the radar, the electronic warfare suite and the mission computer.

The IAF had formally accepted the first two upgraded Mirage-2000 I/TI in 2015.

Balakot Connection To Upgrade Program

Incidentally, the Balakot operation was also planned keeping in mind the capabilities of the upgraded and the non-upgraded Mirage-2000.

While a total of 16 Mirage-2000 aircraft crossed into Pakistani airspace and four others remained within Indian air space for backup, only six fighters that were equipped with Spice 2000 bombs, that were used to target the Jaish-e-Mohammad camp in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, were actually the non-upgraded ones.

This was because the upgraded aircraft were still not integrated with the Israeli weapon system, which were first integrated during 2014-2015.

However, for the non-upgraded aircraft to move into enemy space and to give them cover, the upgraded Mirage-2000s were in the lead and were the first ones to enter Pakistani airspace. This was because only the upgraded aircraft were integrated with the potent MICA air-to-air missile.

Mirage Upgrade Comes At A High Cost

The overall cost of the Mirage-2000 upgrade program is pegged at over Rs 17,000 crore, and had created a storm when it was inked back in 2011.

This was because the last lot of the Mirage-2000 fighters, for which the deal was signed in 2000, were acquired at the cost of Rs 133 crore apiece. Then-defence minister A.K. Antony had said in 2013 that the upgrade cost of each Mirage would come to Rs 167 crore.

He argued that if an escalation price of 3.5 per cent per annum is taken into account, the cost of the aircraft acquired in 2000 would come to Rs 195 crore in 2011, and hence, the upgrade cost was 85 per cent of the aircraft cost.

However, the overall upgrade cost is higher. This is because while in 2011, India signed a Rs 10,947 crore deal, which included both the French and HAL work share, it inked another deal in 2012 for the purchase of the MICA air-to-air missiles for the fighters at about Rs 6,600 crore.

Incidentally, India had twice missed out the opportunity to manufacture the plane in India. India has not purchased phased out Mirage-2000 from France for spare parts that would come handy in the coming years.