Live Punjab News Service
New Delhi — India is re-examining the option of buying 12 second-hand French Mirage 2000-5 fighters from Qatar after having shelved their acquisition last year over cost differences.
The Indian Air Force’s (IAF) plans to buy the aircraft – nine single seats and three twin-seat trainers – is part of its “stopgap” plans to reinforce its depleting fighter squadrons, over which IAF chief Air Chief Marshal S.P. Tyagi had recently conveyed his concern to the government.
The Mirage 2000-5 had been cleared by the cabinet committee on security headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in March 2005, but quietly abandoned after India’s “embarrassingly low” offer to Qatar.
“The fighters have 80-85 per cent of their operational life intact,” Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee had declared last year.
Qatar acquired the French fighters in 1997 and has used them sparingly.
“Pressuring Qatar into selling the Mirage 2000-5 fighters to India appears, in the light of the IAF’s low offer, to have merely been a tactic by India to stop them being sold to Pakistan three years ago,” diplomatic sources said, declining to be identified. The Qataris, he added, felt India was making a mockery of the fighter purchase.
During a visit to Qatar in January 2003, then deputy prime minister L.K. Advani is believed to have told the Qatari authorities that India would be forced to “reconsider” a major gas contract if the Sheikhdom decided to sell the Mirage 2000-5s to Pakistan as it was planning.
Qatar was reportedly under pressure to “dispose of” the aircraft from the US, which had established a major base in the country for the Iraqi invasion and was averse to the presence of French technicians from servicing the fighters. Consequently, Qatar had decided to dispose them off to a Muslim nation like Pakistan.
Pakistan, for its part, was keen on the Qatari offer not only to augment its diminishing air assets but also to try and achieve parity with the IAF’s Mirage-2000 fleet acquired in the late 1980s.
Thereafter, in initial talks India reportedly indicated a willingness to pay around $600 million for the fighters and a host of additional ordnance, including some 500 air-to-air and air-to-surface missiles when Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani visited Delhi in April 2005.
But the $375 million offer extended by the IAF delegation that visited Qatar a few months later in June 2005 led to negotiations being terminated.
The proposed Mirage 2000-5 deal could be a tripartite agreement involving manufacturers Dassault Aviation, who would be responsible for upgrading the fighters with new avionics and mission systems before delivering them to the IAF.
In a related development, the IAF last week opened negotiations here with a delegation from Dassault to upgrade its 48 Mirage 2000’s to Mirage 2000-9 standards.
The IAF had recently alerted the government to its need for an “immediate stopgap acquisition” of fighters in order to maintain operational preparedness.
“We have to increase the number of aircraft. Our only option is to get something in a hurry. We are looking to order more aircraft of the types we already operate and have told the government (of our requirements),” Tyagi said recently.
The IAF has a sanctioned strength of 39.5 squadrons but presently operates just 32, a number that is expected to drop to 28 by 2012 as ageing MiG-21 variants that constitute nearly 45 per cent of its 700-odd fighters are retired.
“Unless immediate steps are taken to arrest the reduction in IAF’s force levels, the nation will for the first time in its history, lose the conventional military edge over Pakistan” Tyagi had declared in a classified three-page letter to Mukherjee in June.
He stated that the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) is being “beefed up” with 44 F16s from the US with the “clearly defined goal” of attaining parity with the IAF.
And with China supplying Islamabad J10 and JF17 aircraft fitted with Russian engines – a development over which India has joined issue with Moscow – the PAF’s combat squadrons would increase from 19 to 26 by 2011-12, Tyagi added.