Faced with a dual threat from China and Pakistan, which have even come together to manufacture fighter jets, India is really cranking up military aviation contracts. Even as the $4.1 billion deal for 10 American C-17 Globemaster-III strategic airlift aircraft awaits the final nod from the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), another major contract is now headed that way.
Defence ministry sources on Wednesday said the long-awaited deal with France for the upgrade of 52 Mirage-2000 multi-role fighters in IAF's combat fleet is "finally ready" at a cost of almost Rs 11,000 crore ($2.4 billion).
"This is also now going to CCS for approval. Another big contract, which was being progressed simultaneously, for around 450 MICA (interception and aerial combat missiles) systems to arm the upgraded Mirages is also in the final stages now," said a source.
This comes after long-drawn negotiations with French companies Dassault Aviation (aircraft manufacturer), Thales (weapons systems integrator) and MBDA (missile supplier), which were "initially asking for much more", said sources.
Under the contract, the first four to six Mirages will be upgraded in France, while the rest will be retrofitted in India by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) with transfer of technology from the French companies.
This means the overall Mirage upgrade package, including the fire-and-forget MICA missiles and the infrastructure build-up at HAL, will eventually cross the Rs 15,000-crore mark.
It obviously raises questions whether it would be more prudent to simply buy new fighters rather than upgrade older ones at such a huge cost. IAF, however, argues the "retrofitted" Mirages -- with new avionics, radars, mission computers, glass cockpits, helmet-mounted displays, electronic warfare suites, weapon delivery and precision-targeting systems -- would remain "top-notch fighters" for almost two decades more.
With a depleting number of fighter squadrons (each has 16 to 18 jets), down to just 32 from a `sanctioned strength' of 39.5, IAF is going for a mix of upgrades and new inductions to stem its fast-eroding combat edge over even Pakistan.
There is, for instance, the ongoing upgrade of 63 MiG-29s under a $964 million deal inked with Russia in March 2008. Then, India is also progressively inducting the 272 Sukhoi-30MKIs contracted from Russia for around $12 billion. Moreover, the first lot of the around 120 indigenous Tejas Light Combat Aircraft will begin joining the force from end-2013 onwards.
India also wants to ink by December this year the $10.4 billion project for 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA), in which only the French Rafale and Eurofighter Typhoons are now left in contention after ejection of the American, Russian and Swedish jets.
On top of this all, India hopes to begin inducting 250-300 advanced stealth fifth-generation fighter aircraft (FGFA), being co-developed with Russia, from 2020 onwards, in what will be its biggest-ever defence project at around $35 billion.