They say the Su-30MKI is the backbone of the IAF, but the Mirage 2000 is the Muscle.
This aircraft is built by the same firm which has developed the Rafale. Just like Rafale is one of the most potent combat platforms of the current era, back in the day, Mirage 2000 used to be among the best aircraft in the world when it first flew in the 1980s. The Mirage legacy is very old, it is from the delta wing family of venerable fighters, the Mirage III & Mirage V. These were fearsome fighters in the 1970s & 80s and Mirage 2000 has been developed from the experience gained by the Mirage III & V in various aerial conflicts.
It is a simple & clean design delta wing aircraft. It has an all metal fuselage (to bring the production costs down) & a very pilot friendly M53 afterburning turbofan engine. The Mirage 2000 evolved gradually into a tactical bomber, attacker, fighter & even a nuclear launch platform.
The Rajiv Gandhi government signed a deal to buy 49 Mirage 2000 aircraft in 1984 in response to Pakistan’s purchase of the F-16 from the United States because back then the existing earlier batch of MiG-21 & MiG-23 were no match for the F-16s.
The real test of Mirage 2000 happened 15 years later during the Kargil conflict. After repeated bomb and rocket-runs by IAF MiG 21s and MiG-27s had failed to dislodge heavily entrenched Pakistani defences well within Indian territory, the IAF pressed in its trump card, and the airstrikes by Mirages using laser-guided bombs broke the back of the enemy’s supply lines.
During Operation Safed Sagar in 1999, the IAF had just a handful of laser-guided bombs and it didn’t have the kit to ensure that the bombs would hit high-altitude targets with pin-point precision. In a record time of 12 days, modified laser-guided bombs were mated to hastily-procured Israeli Litening laser targeting pods & thus the IAF’s Mirages became instruments of death.
Point 5140, Tololing, Tiger Hill and a major re-supply base in the Batalik sector were destroyed, cutting off forward deployed Pakistani forces thus starving them to death. During the entire operation from May to July 1999, the two Mirage squadrons flew a total of 514 sorties with only three dropouts. No.1 Squadron flew 274 air defence and strike escort missions, while No.7 Squadron conducted 240 strike missions during which it dropped 55,000 kgs of bombs. All these sorties took off from the legendary Ambala Air Force base.
In 2004, seeing the success of the jets, the IAF bought ten more Mirage 2000s raising a third squadron of the aircraft, based at Gwalior. The IAF had so much confidence in this aircraft that it was close to signing a deal for buying 126 Mirage 2000-5s, but as the assembly lines of Mirage 2000 were to be closed shortly in 2007, the deal was converted into the MMRCA contest ultimately won by Dassault’s Rafale.
In 2019, the Mirages were back in the limelight when 12 Mirage 2000s bombed & obliterated terror camps in Balakot with SPICE precision guided bombs.
Not only conventional bombs, when the matter gets serious, Mirage 2000 can showcase some very special capabilities. In its dual role as a multirole aircraft as well as a nuclear weapons carrier for India’s Strategic Forces Command, a regular Mirage 2000 can carry a single 20 kiloton nuclear bomb, more powerful than the 15KT bomb which was used over Hiroshima.
Also, it is important to mention that the Mirage 2000 is a low maintenance fighter & can operate from forward air bases. The fleet has an extremely high availability of over 80 per cent. In contrast, only 60 per cent of the IAF’s fleet of Su-30MKI is available for flying. The versatility of the aircraft can be seen as Mirage 2000 has performed a successful test landing on Yamuna Expressway to practice using highways for emergency landings.
In 2011, India signed a deal with France worth Rs 17,547 crore to upgrade its fleet of 49 Mirage 2000 aircraft to the 2000-5 Mk2 (called the Mirage 2000I) standard with new glass cockpits, radars, missiles, and self-protection suites.
At the heart of the upgrade is a new Thales RDY 2 radar, which allows for very long-range engagement of targets in the air, automatic tracking of targets, mapping of targets on the ground using Doppler beam-sharpening techniques, and the ability to track and engage targets which are moving on the ground.
The pilot, now equipped with a helmet mounted display, can see superimposed radar data without having to reference any of the displays inside the cockpit. In operational terms, this means that in the case of air combat, the pilot, who is looking through his helmet, can direct weapons by merely pointing their head in the direction of what needs to be hit as opposed to having to manoeuvre the entire jet in the direction of the target – see target, lock on to target, fire missile.
A key component of the Mirage 2000I is a host of new weapons, such as the MICA air-to-air missile, a state-of-the-art missile which is capable of engaging targets both, beyond visual ranges & in close ranges. In January 2012, the government had signed a $1.23 billion contract with the French firm MBDA for the supply of 450 MICA missiles. More missiles were purchased in the Rafale deal.
The overall capabilities of the Mirage 2000–5 Mk2 exceeds that of F-16 IN Viper. Couple that with the proven combat record of Mirage & you have an exceptionally reliable & superior aircraft to that of your adversaries.
The upgrade and life-extension will see the IAF’s Mirage 2000s in service until 2040, potentially making it the IAF’s longest-serving fighter jet.
This is the story of Mirage 2000, affectionately known as Vajra in the IAF.