Even as it supports a French bid for an Indian Air Force tender for 126 combat jets.
European aerospace major Thales is awaiting the IAF's final nod for upgrading its fleet of Mirage-2000 fighter bombers to enhance their strike capabilities and extend their operational life by at least 20 years.
"We have several significant priorities for India. In the short term the retrofit of the Mirage-2000 is clearly a strong request and we are working hard on it - Thales is leading this important programme along with its French and Indian industrial partners," Pierre-Yves Chaltiel, Thales' head of solutions for governments sector, told a news agency.
"In the mid-term, we are also strongly supporting the Rafale aircraft along with the Dassault and Snecma in the bid for India's MMRCA (medium multi-role combat aircraft) programme (for the 126 jets)," he added. Chaltiel is in India for the Aero India-2009 international air show at Bangalore, during which Thales will showcase its capabilities in the spheres of military aviation, civil aviation, aviation services and security, air traffic management and defence.
Pointing out that the technical and programme issues relating to the Mirage-2000 upgrade "have been discussed and agreed (to)", Chaltiel said: "We have put everything in place with all our Indian industrial partners, through the transfer of knowledge and technology, for the Indian industry to be in full capacity during the execution phases of the programme."
While Thales was reluctant to state figures due to a confidentiality clause, the project is believed to be worth $1.5 billion for upgrading the 51 Mirage-2000s in the IAF fleet to Dash-5 levels. This will give the jets multi-role capability with longer-range radars and fire-and-forget missiles, necessitating fewer aircraft to perform a given mission, thanks to greater fuel and weapon-delivery capacities.
The upgrade will involve providing the Mirage-2000, which was first inducted in mid-1980, a state-of-the-art fly-by-wire digital cockpit and an enhanced weapons-carrying capability. Under the Thales proposal, the company would deliver the first two aircraft from its facilities in France within 40 months of the signing of the contract, and would simultaneously assist Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) in upgrading another two aircraft in India in the same time frame.
Thereafter, HAL would upgrade one of the remaining 47 aircraft every month.
"The Mirage-2000 will be further enhanced by the integration of new capabilities," Chaltiel had said late last year. "These include longer range detection across the spectrum, improved tactical situation awareness, longer range weapon firing against multiple simultaneous targets, weapon stealth and extended operating envelope, with the capacity to engage ground targets while countering airborne threats," Chaltiel said.
"The resulting tactical advantage will allow commanders to commit fewer aircraft while achieving a higher success rate, thanks in particular to greater fuel and weapon-delivery capacities. For instance, a typical border protection mission involving two hours on station will require just two upgraded Mirage-2000 aircraft compared with the current six aircraft," Chaltiel said.
The IAF had floated a global tender in September 2007 for 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft in a deal valued at $10 billion. Six jets are in the fray: the US Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet and the Lockheed Martin F-16, the French Dassault Rafale, the Swedish Saab Grippen, the Russian MiG-35 and the Eurofighter Typhoon built by a four-nation European consortium.
The technical bids have been evaluated and the six aircraft will be put through rigorous testing in Bangalore, Jaisalmer and Leh. The first is meant to gauge the aircraft's ability to operate in the humid conditions of south, the second their effectiveness in the deserts of Rajasthan, and the third to study their suitability in the icy Himalayan heights of Ladakh in Jammu & Kashmir.
By the time the evaluation process is complete, the size of the order is likely to rise to around 200 jets, as the IAF, which is down to 32 squadrons from a high of 39 1/2, is expected to see a further depletion of its fleet due to the retirement of some of its ageing Soviet-era MiG-21 aircraft. The IAF has a sanctioned strength of 45 squadrons.