Twenty year after chasing away Pakistani forces from the Kargil heights, the Mirage 2000 is back in news -this was the Indian Air Force toy that ripped the skies across Line of Control and attacked terror camps inside Pakistan in the wee hours of Tuesday, 26 February 2019.
Eleven days after the Pulwama carnage which a terror strike by Pakistan based Jaish-e-Mohammad killed over 40 officials of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), India hit the terror training camps inside Pakistan and Pakistan occupied Kashmir. Indian Air Force officials scrambled Mirage 2000 fighters to strike a terror camp in Balakot, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan. IAF officials claim that laser-guided munitions were used in the attack. The attack is notable as the Mirage 2000 fighters were able to apparently penetrate further into Pakistani airspace via the usage of electronic warfare payloads.
The Mirage story
It was nearly four decades ago, the sale of US F-16s to Pakistan prompted India to enter talks with France regarding the purchase of the Mirage 2000. In October 1982, the country placed an order with Dassault for 36 single-seat Mirage 2000Hs and 4 twin-seat Mirage 2000THs (with H standing for “Hindustan”) with the possibility of a follow-on purchase of nine aircraft (eight single and one twin-seater aircraft) as war, maintenance and attrition reserve. Previously, negotiations were underway for a purchase of up to 150 aircraft, which would have paved the way for joint production with Hindustan Aeronautics Limited. In any case, the number of aircraft ordered was too small for such an arrangement. India nevertheless had the option to produce a number of Mirage 2000s under license that was later scrapped due to the country’s close relationship with the Soviet Union. India also purchased ATLIS II pods and several Matra Bombes A Guidage Laser (BGL) Arcole 1000 Kg laser-guided penetration bombs for the Mirage, which the IAF had named the “Vajra” (Sanskrit: वज्र, for Lightning, Thunderbolt).
With the delivery of the first seven aircraft on 29 June 1985 to No. 7 Squadron, the Battleaxes, the Indian Air Force (IAF) became the first foreign user of the type. The service’s early aircraft were powered by the Snecma M53-5 engine (and so were designated Mirage 2000H5 and Mirage 2000TH5), which were quickly replaced by the more-powerful M53-P2 engine. The second Squadron to convert to the Mirage 2000 was No. 1 Squadron, The Tigers, which was formally accepted as a Mirage 2000 Sqn in January 1986; within twelve months of the first delivery, the IAF had received all 40 aircraft ordered. The follow-on order of nine aircraft was signed in 1986. Five aircraft were delivered by 1990, two more in 1992 and the last two aircraft were delivered in 1994. As such, it was not until 1990 that full unit establishment was achieved.
There were only four flying accidents in the Mirage 2000 fleet in the first decade of operations. The first took place on 22 April 1987, in which the pilot, Flt Lt Anil G Ghatge was killed when he flew into Tosham Hill near Sirsa, Haryana at night. The second took place in early 88, when Flt Lt RTS Gill ejected from the aircraft which suffered an engine surge due to ingestion of a fractured airflow guidance cone located just short of the face of the first stage fan blades. The third was the live-on-TV crash of the aircraft carrying out a low level aerobatics display in New Delhi on 8 Oct 1989, the Indian Air Force Day. The pilot, Wg Cdr Ramesh ‘Joe’ Bakshi was killed. The fourth was a crash soon after takeoff due to a bird strike, subsequent ingestion and a flame-out, in end 1994. The pilot, Flt Kt K Suresh, ejected safely.
The single major untoward event on ground was the partial collapse of the 1 Sqn hangar onto the aircraft parked therein on 24 May 1989. Eight aircraft parked in the northern half of the hangar were affected, with one suffering extensive damage. With prompt technical help from Dassault, France, six aircraft were repaired within three weeks, and one took four weeks. The extensively damaged aircraft was repaired in 80 days. No aircraft was lost.
The Mirage 2000 would encounter other issues; during the first decade of service, the fleet suffered from operational and maintenance issues. The Indian government’s Controller and Auditor General reported in 1995 that there was a delay in the construction of overhaul facilities and a shortage of spare parts, and that as a result the fleet could not meet its required flying hours.
In 1999, when the Kargil War broke out, the Mirage 2000 performed remarkably well during the whole conflict in the high Himalayas, even though the Mirages supplied to India had limited air interdiction capability and had to be heavily modified to drop laser-guided bombs as well as conventional unguided bombs. Armed with Paveway LGBs, the aircraft were involved in the destruction of enemy command bunkers. During Operation Safed Sagar from June–July 1999, two Mirage squadrons flew a total of 514 sorties. No. 1 Squadron flew air defence and strike escort missions, while No. 7 Squadron conducted 240 strike missions during which it dropped 55,000 kg (121,000 lb) of ordnance.
The impressive service of the Mirage 2000 in 1999 prompted the IAF to consider the acquisition of a further 126 aircraft. Instead, the Mirage 2000-5 became a contender for the IAF’s Indian MRCA competition in competition with the Mikoyan MiG-35, F-16 Fighting Falcon and JAS 39 Gripen. In 2004, the Indian government approved purchase of ten Mirage 2000Hs, featuring improved avionics, particularly an upgraded RDM 7 radar; they were delivered in 2007 for a total of 50 aircraft. Dassault would replace the Mirage 2000 with the Rafale as its contender as the Mirage 2000 production line was to be closed.
In 2004, when India made its third order for the type, the government announced its intention to upgrade its existing Mirage 2000s. After a period of protracted negotiations for the next several years during which India and Dassault came close to signing a contract several times, India in July 2011 approved a $2.2 billion upgrade package for its Mirage 2000s. Worth some $43 million per aircraft, the upgrade would see the fleet be upgraded to Mirage 2000-5 Mk. 2 standard, with provisions made for the use of a night vision-capable glass cockpit, upgraded navigation and IFF systems, advanced multi-mode multi-layered radar, and fully integrated electronic warfare suite, among other updates. In addition, the fleet’s inventory of Super 530D and Magic II missiles would be replaced by MICA, an order for which was placed in 2012. The first of the two IAF Mirages sent to France to be upgraded made its first flight in October 2013, marking the start of a test campaign that would encompass 250 flights, culminating in the handover of the first aircraft, redesignated Mirage 2000I, in March 2015. The new jets were redesignated Mirage 2000I for the single-seat version and Mirage 2000TI for the twin-seat version.
One two-seat trainer crashed on 25 February 2012. Another two-seater crashed on 5 March 2012. On 1 February 2019, a two-seat trainer crashed and killed two pilots.