India this month told the French defence industry what it had been waiting five long years to hear: that it will spend $2.4 billion upgrading its fleet of 25-year-old Mirage 2000H fighters.
The French press trumpeted the fact that French firms Dassault, Thales and MBDA all stood to gain, as India’s 51 Mirages are tricked out with state-of-the-art avionics, computer and electronic warfare systems, radars and plenty more besides. At $47 million worth of retooling per plane, the upgrade might seem extravagant to say the least, but the refit should allow the Indian Air Force (IAF) to keep one of its most dependable frontline fighters in service and combat-effective well into the 2030s.
Many analysts went further, and pointed out that Dassault stood to gain the most. The Mirage upgrade was simply the hors d’oeuvres, they suggested, and the contract for 126 medium multirole aircraft the plat principal, with Dassault’s Rafale now looking a sound bet to edge out the Eurofighter Typhoon in the final reckoning due around September.
There are some good reasons to infer that the Mirage agreement could indeed prefigure a Rafale win. Previous attempts to kick-start the Mirage upgrade project foundered, the Indian media reported at the time, on cost, with the French said to be holding out for around $3.3 billion. The fact that Dassault and partners have now agreed to take on the work for far less than they were demanding only last year might suggest that they are now confident that more Indian cash could soon be sluicing its way along the pipeline. A more concrete reason to tip Rafale is implicit in the Indian decision to upgrade the Mirage at such extreme cost: IAF officers really rate the Mirage and are therefore very enthusiastic about taking on its successor.
And yet, Rafale’s Frenchness might in fact count against it. The IAF has been actively diversifying its inventory in recent times, adding US and Israeli planes to its Russian, French and Anglo-French backbone. As such, the Eurofighter Typhoon, jointly supplied by Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK, is arguably the best acquisition for an IAF seeking to spread the risk in its portfolio. At the same time, with so many partners, the Typhoon could be said to spread the risk a little thinner than even the IAF would like.
The Hindustan Times suggested that all this reading of the runes was unnecessary, arguing simply that ‘the lowest bidder will secure the bitterly fought contract.’ The decision might indeed prove to be that straightforward: the money – $86 million for Rafale versus $124 million for the Typhoon – is in the end the only factor putting clear daylight the two competitors.