The Indian Air Force (IAF) is settling down to investigate the two successive crashes of Mirage-2000 fighters last month. A sense of despondence and a pertinent sense of alarm have shrouded the IAF’s only two Mirage squadrons based in Gwalior.
Pertinent because the IAF’s Mirages are still considered the best aircraft the IAF flies. And over 20 years since they were first developed, the Mirage-2000 has managed to remain, by almost all accounts, an extremely capable multirole combat jet and still manages to even look contemporary. Dassault Aviation’s type-defining delta-wing configuration, put to first use on the Mirage-2000, later became a cornerstone of European aircraft design on aircraft that included Dassault’s later fighter—the Rafale, Eurofighter’s the Typhoon and Saab’s the Gripen.
The IAF has held no quarter in expressing its need for 124 more multirole combat jets, apart from the 10 Mirage-2000 fighters that should arrive by the end of this year. But after the crashes, controversy hopped along. A commercial court in Paris announced last month that Dassault had employed the services of middlemen—an act largely prohibited by weapons-buying governments around the world. The ban flew into place in India after Bofors broke out in 1986. However, Air Chief Marshal S Krishnaswamy, who had the court papers sent to him from the Indian embassy in Paris this week, was quick to say that no middlemen were involved in the deal for the 10 Mirage-2000 planes with India. Defence minister Pranab Mukherjee said while the deal will go through, they will need some sort of undertaking or guarantee for future relations.
The complexity of the case is double-edged. On the one hand, it vindicates Dassault Aviation assurance to the Indian government—even in writing—that middlemen and touts were never part of the way they functioned with India. But the fact that middlemen existed at all may call for consideration, because on all other counts, the IAF maintains a fairly smooth relationship with the three companies that contribute to the Mirage-2000—Dassault, Snecma and Thomson CSF, all of which are down in India now to help unravel the crash.
In the Air Force, there are some who believe that crashes actually happen in threes. While the court of inquiry into the crashes had pretty much discovered what brought the planes down, the critical task is to find out how the situation came up at all. Questions raised, egos bruised, especially since one of the fighters crashed during an air exercise with the Singapore Air Force, Air Headquarters has come down hard on Gwalior, demanding a full review of maintenance procedures at 1 and 7 Squadrons. By all accounts, the two crashes were linked to slack maintenance. Engineers from Dassault and Snecma are now in Gwalior, and it doesn’t look like they will return in a hurry.
Although an aircraft of a certain vintage, the Mirage-2000 is an enormously complex piece of machinery. Considering its intricate advancement, which feels new even today, it is known to take far longer to investigate the crash of a Mirage than any other aircraft in the IAF’s fleet today.
What is perhaps alarming is that the court of inquiry will also investigate the seemingly intangible possibility of complacence. The fact that Mirage-2000s have had a particularly safe flying record (only three had crashed before last month’s duo) may have caused slackness in maintenance, in observation, in the quality of work—not easy possibilities for Air Headquarters to digest if it ever has to. But this, and deeper issues necessarily form a part of a now upfront debate—has the Gwalior Air Force station, which is often thought to accommodate some of the IAF’s elite, slackened even in the process with which it inducts pilots? That possibility, no doubt, will come up since one Mirage crash-landed earlier this month in Mauritius because the pilot evidently failed to lower the aircraft’s landing gear, though this is yet unconfirmed.
It is now ironic that the Mirage-2000, which India quickly acquired in 1985 in response to Pakistan’s F-16 purchase from the US, now competes with the same aircraft. To the justifiable consternation of Pakistan, Indian Mirages in Gwalior had their first-ever joint exercises with F-16s from Singapore, Pakistan had protested that this was unfair familiarisation with force levels of its own air force. Lockheed-Martin is now part of the bidding process for the IAF’s massive order of multirole jets, along with RAC MiG, Dassault and Sukhoi-maker Irkuts. The IAF’s qualitative requirements have only just been sent to the Ministry of Defence.
While the IAF’s new birds, the lethal-even-to-look-at Su-30 jets, are its new posterboys, the Mirage-2000 has enjoyed the unusual distinction of remaining contemporary, not least because Dassault has preserved and upgraded the aircraft’s capabilities almost constantly, making it also the most expensive fighter India has ever purchased—India has only a little over 40 Mirages, while it flies hundreds of MiGs.
India also enjoys the distinction of having the world’s finest and most comprehensive Mirage mission simulation infrastructure. The purchase of about 120 new multirole fighters is also linked with inordinate delays in the LCA Tejas project, designed ultimately to replace the IAF’s ageing MiG frontline fleet.
Why the Mirage-2000 is held so high in the IAF has also a lot to do with its performance in Operation Vijay—high altitude operations during the Kargil war, after the Air Force found the rest of its fleet wanting in similar missions. Through 1999, the IAF’s Mirages engaged in improvised bombing and strike missions that softened enemy camps in crucial points including Muntho Dhalo, Tiger Hill and Point 4388.
The dynamics of aircraft purchases and maintenance are constantly re-defined by geo-political policy, treaties between countries, even the relations between neighbours. With arms experts everywhere calling the Indian and Pakistani situation an arms race, there is a tacit acknowledgement that air power is an even more integral part of fighting threats from the other side. The IAF has sanction for about 39 aircraft squadrons but it needs at least 45 to respond to force level requirements, which is why the order for 120 more jets is on the pipeline.
The Mirages, which exercised with the USAF’s Boeing F-15 Eagles in 2003, were reportedly demonic in their subjugation of the American fighters, though myriad reports in the American press pin this on the absence of an advanced radar system on the F-15s. However, the USAF has made no bones in admitting that it is not as far ahead of the world’s air forces as it had initially thought. Indeed, if Indian accounts are to be believed, the USAF received a fair drubbing during the Cope India exercises at Gwalior—it is a side note that this may be used by the US defence forces to push further for the replacement of its air force fleet with F/A-22 Raptors and F-35 Joint Strike Fighters.
At the end of the day, the IAF maintains that it has the skills and flying power of the best in the world. With force multipliers like the IL-78M mid-air refuellers joining the fray and international diplomacy becoming more entrenched in the way the IAF forges ties with the air forces of other countries, the role of its fighters is not hard to see.