India is poised to award a E1.5 billion ($2.2 billion) contract for upgrades to its Mirage 2000 fighters to a consortium comprising French firms Thales and Dassault.
The deal has been timed to coincide with French President Nicolas Sarkozy's state visit to India, say official sources in New Delhi. Work is likely to begin by year-end, with two aircraft upgraded in France and the rest in India in collaboration with state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics.
The contract is expected to cover upgrades to engines, avionics, navigation systems, mission computers, electronic warfare systems and radars. The work will bring India's 51 aircraft to the Mirage 2000-9-standard operated by the French air force, says a source in New Delhi. The service hopes to add 20 years of life of the aircraft, which were introduced between 1985 and 1989.
By awarding the contract to the Thales-Dassault consortium over a competing Israel Aircraft Industries proposal, New Delhi appears keen to mollify the French, who were angry after it called off an army tender for 197 light utility helicopters.
EADS subsidiary Eurocopter was poised to win the $500 million contract until India cancelled it following allegations of irregularities. A fresh request for proposals is expected shortly, with the AS550 Fennec and Bell 407 again likely to be in the fray.
Both European and French government officials have privately expressed their concern about the procurement process to their Indian counterparts, but long-standing Franco-Indian defence relations have helped to soothe their anger. However, Sarkozy is likely to raise the issue during his visit and make a renewed pitch for the AS550.
India remains a major customer for global defence contractors, however. Dassault's Rafale fighter is competing in India's tender for 126 medium multirole combat aircraft that is valued at up to $15 billion, battling the Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet, Eurofighter Typhoon, Lockheed Martin F-16, Saab Gripen and Sukhoi Su-35.
Upgrades to its ageing Mirage 2000s are essential as India tries to plug a capability gap ahead of the new fighters' arrival around 2014, and amid continued delays to its Aeronautical Development Agency Tejas light combat aircraft. It is also in talks with Russia for RSK MiG-29 upgrades and is likely to order more Su-30MKIs.