The Qatari authorities are reportedly upset over a "ridiculously low" offer the Indian Air Force recently made for 12 used French Mirage 2000-5 fighters that it has been in negotiations to buy from the Emirate.
Official sources said the IAF’s $375-million bid for the fighters — almost half the asking amount by the Qataris — indicated the Air Force’s "casual attitude" to acquiring the aircraft despite its rapidly shrinking fighter fleet and ostensible eagerness to bolster its operational capabilities.
"Pressuring Qatar into selling the Mirage 2000-5 fighters appears, in the light of the IAF’s present offer, to have merely been a tactic by India to stop them from being sold to Pakistan two years ago," a diplomatic source said, declining to be identified. The Qataris feel India is making a mockery of the purchase, he added.
During a visit to Qatar in January 2003, former 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 from the US to "dispose off" the Mirage 2000-5s. The Americans had established a major base in Qatar for their invasion of Iraq and was apparently averse to the presence of French technicians for servicing the fighters. It was then decided to dispose the aircraft off to a fellow Islamic country.
Also, at the time, France had vociferously opposed Iraq’s invasion by the US and relations between Washington and Paris were bad, bordering on antagonistic.
According to official sources, the Qataris are believed to be demanding around $750 million for the fighters — nine single seat and three trainers — whose acquisition was cleared by India’s Cabinet Committee on Security in March. "The fighters have 80-85 per cent of their operational life intact," defence minister Pranab Mukherjee had declared in March, adding that talks for their acquisition would begin soon. Qatar had acquired the fighters in 1997 and had used them sparingly.
Thereafter, India is also believed to have indicated a willingness to pay around $650-700 million for the fighters when Qatar’s Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, visited Delhi in mid-April, signifying that further discussions were merely a "formality" before a price negotiation committee was constituted and the deal concluded.
But the "meagre" $375-million purchase offer extended by the eight-member Indian team led by Mr S.K. Sharma, joint secretary (air and acquisitions) that returned home on June 30 after a four-day trip to Qatar, is reported to have caused "offence" in the sheikhdom. Air-Vice Marshal K.K. Nohwar, who heads the planning division, was also part of the visiting team.
Official sources said the deal for the Mirage 2000-5s was to be a tripartite agreement involving the makers of Mirage, Dassualt Aviation, who would be responsible for upgrading the fighters with new avionics and mission systems before delivering them to the IAF by the year-end once India finalised their purchase from Qatar.
The IAF had planned on inducting the Mirage 2000-5s into a special squadron at Gwalior where its 49 Mirage 2000Hs, acquired in the mid-1980s are based. Ten additional Mirage 2000Hs the IAF acquired in the late 1990s have also been delivered and are in the process of being deployed at forward bases in the north.
Incidentally, the Mirage 2000-5 is one of four aircraft competing for the IAF’s tender for 126 multi-role fighters, but defence officials are quick to point out that the Qatari acquisition was not indicative of any preference for the larger buy.