jai wrote:Can anyone throw a light on the circumstances under which IAF chose M2K when it did ? Trying to understand the options it had, the logic IAF possibly went with in selecting the Mirage.
Wondering if there are any learnings or context from that procurement to this MRCA competition.
As Nachiket already explained, it was bought as a direct counter to the F-16s that PAF was buying. These 2 were at that time, the only unstable CCV fighters with FBW systems, which gave them agility way beyond what any MiG at that possessed (the Fulcrum was yet to emerge) and from the pilot’s point of view, the boon of carefree handling, which meant you didn’t need to be cautious when engaging in maneuvers during ACM or even BFM. This was a generational jump in my view, and it distinguishes 3rd generation fighters from 2nd generation fighters, although nowadays with the avionics/weapons upgrades even a Bison could compete with the Mirage-2000H. But from a pilot’s perspective, the Mirage will any day be a superior fighter to fly.
The best fighter that the IAF had only begun inducting at that time was the MiG-23MF, a variant of the MiG-23BN. Its radar and semi-active BVR (although in reality the missile would invariably be fired after the pilot makes a visual identification of the bogey to prevent friendly fire, hence WVR) gave it a decent air-intercept capability compared to the MiG-21 Bis that was the IAF’s other main air interceptor.
The MiG-23 was a decent fighter when flown within its limits, with a powerful turbojet engine but essentially the swing-wing design never really imparted any particularly great advantage to any aircraft that sported it. It was the big concept of the 1960s and an attempt to make a fighter ok in both slow speed and high speed regimes, before the advent of CCV and FBW. But the associated airframe shoulder pivot joints were heavy and added a lot of airframe weight. In slower speed regimes, the wing would be at much lower sweep and the wing loading would be quite high because the wings themselves were quite slender with a high aspect ratio- this is seen on the MiG-23, 27, Tornado, F-111, all of them. And consequently, all of these aircraft ended up being average or below average fighters (MiG-23MF, F-111 and Tornado ADV) and never had the potential to become as good as fighters designed from day one to be nimble with lower wing loading. They became jack of all trades type. Even today, the Tornado ADV is considered to be only good at BVR whereas in WVR, it turns like a truck and is completely outclassed by the F-16 or Mirage-2000.
These swing-wingers could turn with a decent sustained turn rate because the engine provided adequate thrust and the low and medium sweep wings would generate enough lift. But then you had higher wing loading, the instantaneous turn and roll rates would never be great. On the other end of the speed regime, you could pull the wing to its max. number of degrees backward and you had a sort of delta wing, which meant a huge sweepback angle and the ability to really make a dash. So as a striker, this design was adequate, even though you generally had to use far fewer pylons on the wings due to weight constraints for the pivot motors. You ingressed at high speeds with the wing drawn back, before appearing over the target, you pulled your wings forward and once you made a pass over the target, dropping your bombs or strafing, you generally pulled your wings back and made a dash for safety.
The Mirage-2000 then was a revolutionary design for the IAF. It was bought to be an Air-Defence fighter and for this role it had an early advantage over the F-16. This was in the form of the R-530D semi-active BVR missile. The PAF’s F-16A/B Block 15s were all restricted to the WVR only Sidewinder. There were reports that PAF bought AIM-7 Sparrows but these were never confirmed and now it is believed to be just a rumour.
There was a very interesting article in Vayu which was written by retired AM Harish Masand, a former CO of a MiG-29 squadron. He mentioned the fact that the Mirages were handed defeat after defeat in DACT and that the Baaz outperformed it in climb and other factors. What it lacked against the Baaz in pure performance, it made up for in reliability and flexibility and longevitivity. This I’ll discuss more later on in this post. What he also mentions is that when you look at the two aircraft side by side, you’ll notice the difference in the build quality. And I can attest to that. The Mirage is an absolute beauty from up close. Close attention on form and fit mean that panel gaps are very small. There is very little that seems crude about the Vajra when seen from up close and it’s a bird that’s very easy to really fall in love with.
Some guys I’ve spoken to say that such high attention to form and fit doesn’t matter, that Russians knew that the boundary layer was so thick near the aircraft’s skin that such close tolerances didn’t matter for drag. And it’s true that if you want to compare the design philosophy, they’re just very different, and it reflected in costs of manufacturing as well.
Today, the Russians cannot use the same design philosophy on any of their current or future fighters because it’s a known fact that gaps between panels cause spikes in Radar Cross Section returns from a fighter. The YF-22 prototype I saw at a museum was a sight to behold if you notice such things. It’s got super-fine tolerances. In videos, if you see the F-22’s main landing gear door shut, you won’t even see a single line such is the fit (they have an overlap as well, but still).
Anyway, back to the Mirage. If you see the cockpit (I didn’t see it in person but I’ve seen a pic of it on the net), its basically vintage 1980s. Analog dials, large radar display with shielding to allow it to be seen in harsh glare, etc. but the striking difference between it and Russian fighters of that and earlier vintage is how un-cluttered it is despite these. The visibility isn’t as great as the F-16 with the big canopy bow frame, but it’s still somewhat better than either the Baaz or the MiG-23. It’s not hard to see why the Tejas canopy and cockpit overall ergonomics of height at which pilot sits is similar to the Mirage since when the Tejas was going through Project Definition, the Mirage was the template for several design factors. On the Baaz, the canopy starts much higher up, almost close to the pilot’s shoulders.
Even maintenance wise, the Mirage brought up some startling changes for the IAF technicians who were used to MiGs, Su-7s, Gnats, Hunters, etc. The computerized system checks and fault diagnostics system was completely new for the IAF. MTBF for systems and sub-systems was higher than any other aircraft in the IAF. The MTBO for the engine was better than any other aircraft in the IAF. I’m not saying that no system had issues or something like that, but overall, its availability rates were the highest and its aircrew and technicians were justifiably proud of the Mirage. It introduced the IAF to Western 3rd generation technologies that in many ways formed the basis of what it and the DRDO guys wanted on the Tejas, but obviously more advanced to cater for obsolescence.
The Mirages were capable of IFR but the IAF had no tankers, so the probes were not added. The Mirage relies on onboard oxygen tanks, and doesn’t have an OBOGS like the Tejas. This means that even with IFR, its endurance is limited to the amount of oxygen on tanks carried aboard. There was a case where when flying back from Mauritius, Wg Cdr Jaspreet Singh had a close call when a leak in an onboard oxygen tank caused problems and finally when he landed at Trivandrum, he had only 1 liter of oxygen left.
The Mirage airframe is designed for 6000 hours TTL, around twice that of the Baaz. Later on, NAL can do a fatigue test analysis on the Mirage, like it did for the Baaz and I’m pretty sure that they’ll find that the airframe can actually last quite a bit more. The reason for that belief of mine is that IAF Mirages have spent a large portion of their life being Air-defence fighters and that generally causes lower stresses on the airframe even though it involves more high-G maneuvering because you’re not lugging around heavy bombs. In fact, the typical IAF Mirage lead-out is a central drop tank and either clean or with dummy Magic-II on one pylon and one R-530D on another pylon. European air forces had found to their dismay that their F-16 wing spars had cracks in them much earlier than expected, and earlier than seen in other Air Forces that used F-16s for Air-defence, primarily because their missions involved lugging around bombs leading to high stresses.
Flexibility wise, there is no match for the Mirage in the IAF, except for the Su-30MKI now. It did everything that the IAF needed it to do. Air-defence fighter that took on the role of LGB platform for the 1999 Kargil war as well as did escort missions and since then is the only IAF fighter to be integrated with the Israeli Crystal Maze version of the Popeye Standoff air to ground missile.
Sometime in the late 1980s, a few years after induction, the Mirage became the de-facto prime nuclear weapon delivery platform for the IAF, whereas the Jaguar was the first platform to be considered for that role. You can read up on that here where its given in detail
. It also has some very rare pictures of Mirages with different camo schemes that indicate they were ear-marked for missions that involved low-level penetration and hence the green/brown camo.
To their consternation the air force found the bomb pods made by ARDE were just too heavy for the Jaguar. At take-off the aircraft’s ground clearance with the bomb slung to its belly was just two inches which made it unsafe. By late 1986, even as the Brasstacks raged, the Jaguar was rejected. The three pilots selected for the job were sent back. Search then began for new aircraft. The team homed in on the Mirage 2000 purchased from France a few years earlier and work began on preparing the aircraft as India’s prime delivery system.
From the air force, an Air Vice Marshal, who was specially assigned to co-ordinate with DRDO, flew a Mirage fighter stationed at Gwalior to Kalaikunda. Two other pilots, who had been trained for the task, flew in with two more fighters. The core assembly made by TBRL fitted snugly into the container which was then slung under the belly of a Mirage. The bomb, including its explosives, was slightly longer than two adult arms stretched out. Its diameter was as large as a wheel of a min-van. When the container was mated to the aircraft there was nothing to differentiate it from a regular conventional bomb.
The specially chosen pilots had practised the toss bombing manoeuvre for years. There was no extraordinary skill required. Just plain caution. The Mirage 200 was ideal for such a mission. Despite being inducted way back into the min-1980s, the fighter remains top of the line. Pilots praise its reliability and the ease of handling. The ergonomics of the cockpit ensure that man and machine work in absolute harmony.
The Air Vice Marshal mentioned above would’ve most likely been Ajit Bhavnani who went on to become Commander of the Tri-services Nuclear Command and later on Air Marshal and had previously been CO of No.7 Battle Axes.
Air Marshal Ajit Bhavnani, commander of the tri-services nuclear command, will take over as the IAF vice-chief on August 22. The post has remained vacant since a fortnight. Bhavnani’s successor at the Strategic Forces Command will be announced on Friday.
Bhavnani was commissioned into the IAF fighter stream in 1966 and flew 22 missions into the enemy territory during the 1971 Indo-Pak war. In 1976, he underwent the fighter combat leaders course at TACDE in Gwalior, returning to command the institution from 1989 to 1992.
In 1984, he led a team to France to test Mirage-2000H. He commanded one of these. Between 1993-1996, Bhavnani was the Defence Attache in Sweden and other Scandinavian countries, and returned to take over as the Base Commander of the Gwalior station. After this, he served as the Air Advisor to the Air Chief.
What the above points also make clear is that India doesn’t need any of the MRCA winner nations to give it permission to modify the MRCA to carry nukes.
IAF and DRDO have adequate ability to modify their fighters and build small enough nukes to let any fighter carry it as long as it can carry that payload and has adequate ground clearance to take off or land with the bomb slung underneath. I hope this silences that debate and those questions about the US giving us permission to modify F-16s or F-18s if we buy them. They didn’t give permission to PAF to modify their F-16s either, but they did it on their own anyway. Ideally you still want someone like France- no preaching morals and it couldn’t care less about what use India puts its Mirages to as long as India pays it for them. I like that attitude and that’s after all what weapons are for!
IMO that means that an upgrade for the Mirage is totally worth the cost because there is a lot of life left in the airframe and you can use it that much longer as a frontline fighter. Tactics are well established, plenty of trained pilots are available, infrastructure is already set up and HAL already is the only non-OEM that can overhaul Mirages outside of France. There is just too much invested in the Mirages and too much gained to let it just go obsolete by not upgrading it. A modern radar, EW suite , HMS and new missiles will allow the 3 Mirage squadrons to be used for another 15 years at least and they’ll be able to take on any of the PAF’s current or later fighters.
Anyway, things that the IAF would’ve learnt from the experience of having Mirages in service are that it wants a multi-role fighter, one that is flexible to take on other roles, even if it was designed primarily for the Air-defence mission. A Silver bullet fighter like Typhoon that does one job wonderfully well (Air Superiority and Air Defence) but aren’t yet fully able to do other roles particularly well are going to take a lot of effort for the IAF to get them fully multi-role. That is a con, especially when taken along with the cost of the Typhoon. It’s a somewhat similar analogy to the Baaz- it was the IAF’s premier Air Superiority fighter, but pretty much useless at ground attack, which meant that when the IAF wanted a Strategic Command, it was overlooked, and earlier when IAF wanted a new fighter in the 1990s, it was overlooked. The IAF will be ok with less performance (as the Mirage’s pure performance lagged the Baaz’s) than the best, as long as it does a good enough job in most roles.
It wants a fighter that has high availability and reliability and one on which various weapons can be integrated over its lifetime, possibly by non-OEM firms as well (R-73s and R-27s were integrated on Mirages, integrated locally, not by Dassault), so source codes are a must and non-negotiable.
But conversely, Mirage spares are very expensive and India never utilized the right to licence build Mirages at HAL, despite including such a clause in the original contract. Gwalior AFS had infrastructure for more than 100 Mirages because it was originally thought that the IAF would end up with that many or more. The cash crunch in the early 1990s put paid to any such plans as did the induction of Baaz at a much lesser cost. There was a debate in the IAF as to which platform was worth inducting in large numbers. However, neither was chosen and in the mid-late 1990s, the Su-30MKI was selected. This would’ve taught the IAF that it’s important that most spares be built in India and be available without price gouging. Full ToT allows the IAF to maintain its existing fleet without major problems and that is the main idea for ToT, not because the IAF or GoI want them to be reverse engineered or for technologies gained to be used on desi programs, although that will be a small spin-off benefit.