NEW DELHI: India has approved a $2.4-billion deal for French defence groups to upgrade 51 ageing Mirage fighter jets, officials said Thursday, as the country takes further steps to boost its military capacity.
The long-delayed deal is part of a major modernisation programme being undertaken by India, which has become the biggest importer of military hardware among emerging nations as it enjoys rapid economic development.
“The defence secretary has agreed to the proposal put forward by French defence majors Dassault and Thales and (European group) MBDA for the Mirage-2000 retrofit,” a source in the Indian Air Force (IAF) told AFP.
The upgrade of the French-built Mirage jets is expected to include advanced navigation systems, mission computers, electronic warfare systems and radar.
The process is likely to take nine years and will see two of the jets being re-fitted in France, said the source who declined to be named.
Other aircraft will be upgraded at the state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics base in Bangalore.
No confirmation of the deal was released by the Indian government, but a defence ministry official told AFP that the decision was cleared by the cabinet committee on security on Wednesday.
The overhaul of the fleet will add 20-25 years to the life of the Mirages, which were introduced to the Indian air force in the mid-1980s.
The deal had been frozen for five years due to differences over costs and the intended benefits to the IAF, which is also finalising a $12 billion deal to buy 126 new combat aircraft.
The IAF has argued that the Mirage upgrade was good value as it will transform the aircraft into cutting-edge combat planes.
“The history of Mirage shows that it is one of the most reliable multi-role fighter aircraft,” Neeru Khatri, a defence analyst with international consultancy firm KPMG, told AFP.
“It was used very intelligently during the Kargil conflict with Pakistan (in 1999). It definitely makes sense to upgrade it and use it for the next two decades because it is not beyond economic repair.”
India in February boosted military spending to Rs1.65 trillion ($36 billion) for the financial year to March 2012 from Rs1.47 trillion the previous year.
KPMG estimates New Delhi will hand out military contracts worth $112 billion by 2016.
“Refurbishing and upgrading of the current inventory is one of the most important strategic goals of the IAF,” said Kapil Kak, additional director of New Delhi’s Centre of Air Power Studies think-tank.
“India has never been in a worse situation as far as strength of its combat fleet is concerned. The new acquisitions and upgradations will transform the IAF beyond recognition in the next few years.”
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, India over the last five years was the world’s biggest importer of weapons, buying mostly from Russia.
The country is upgrading its million-plus military with hardware worth tens of billions of dollars because of its long-standing tensions with regional rivals China and Pakistan.
It has also been investing in homeland security since the 2008 attacks by gunmen which left 166 people killed in India’s financial capital Mumbai.