Paris Air Show

Thales upgrades combat aircraft

 - June 18, 2007, 10:33 AM

As well as providing the avionics equipment for France’s high-profile Rafale program, Thales is active in the fighter upgrade business. As new-build combat aircraft programs become fewer and further between, so the military aircraft upgrade business has increased dramatically. Thales and its predecessors supplied most of the combat avionics for French-built fighters for decades, so it is only natural that the company is heavily involved in systems upgrades for those earlier aircraft that remain in service around the world. Here at Le Bourget, the company and its joint-venture partner Sagem are displaying a Mirage F1 to represent an upgrade that is currently under way for the Moroccan air force.

Mirage F1 Retrofit
To provide modernization solutions for the older generations of Mirage fighters, such as the F1, 5 and 50, Thales has formed a joint-venture partnership with Sagem called ASTRAC (Aviation Sagem Thales Retrofit Avions de Combat). ASTRAC’s contract with Morocco covers 27 aircraft and is a thorough reworking of the aircraft’s systems and combat capabilities. Development of the F1 upgrade began at the end of 2006 and is still at a relatively early stage, although the new radar has already been flown. ASTRAC expects to deliver the first aircraft in three years, and the remainder at two per month thereafter. The partnership is also talking with other international Mirage F1 operators, such as Colombia.

At the heart of the upgrade is a new mission systems computer. There is also a new radar in the form of the RC400, and a sensor based on the RDY used in the Mirage 2000-5. This provides compatibility with the MBDA MICA air-to-air missile also used by the Rafale. Related elements are a new electronic warfare suite and new cockpit. The Moroccan Mirage will gain a new EW jamming pod and will carry the Damocles laser/IR targeting/designation system. It will be capable of delivering the AASM IR/GPS-guided boosted bomb, shortly to enter service with Rafale.

Mirage 2000 Upgrade
In partnership with Dassault, Thales is currently involved in upgrade work associated with the later-generation Mirage 2000 and is in the process of delivering upgraded 2000-5 aircraft to Greece, and 2000-9 Mirages to the UAE. In both instances the upgrade of existing aircraft has augmented the supply of new-build production machines.

As for the F1, there are a number of  potential upgrade customers for the Mirage 2000, the most important of which is India. Provisions for a retrofit program are already included in the Franco-Indian government-to-government framework agreement. Thales expects to formally ink an agreement this week with Dassault and HAL, under which they will propose a Mirage 2000 upgrade to the Indian air force. To speed delivery and reduce development costs the aircraft will be based closely on the MICA-armed 2000-5. The new system will incorporate significant spare capacity to facilitate the introduction of other equipment that HAL might add at a later date. A Mirage upgrade already exists within the Indian air force’s requirements, and the formal proposal is due to be made later this year. If accepted, a contract might follow in about a year.

Transport and Trainer Retrofit
As well as its fighter work, Thales is active in the transport and trainer retrofit business. It has worked with Marshall to upgrade the South African air force’s C-130s, and with Sogerma to modify Venezuela’s Hercules fleet. Thales has also upgraded France’s C-130s with new electronic warfare systems and is also working on an upgrade for the Belgian aircraft. The French navy’s Atlantique 2 aircraft are also the subject of an avionics upgrade. In terms of large military aircraft retrofit work, the C-130 is the lead market–as many as 1,200 aircraft. There may even be a possibility to compete in the biggest Hercules market–the U.S.–where the current C-130 Avionics Modernization program may not cover all the aircraft.

Most potential transport retrofit customers are seeking aircraft that can operate in civilian airspace and have adequate self-protection. Thales bases its avionics upgrade on the TopDeck suite to answer the first requirement and brings its extensive EW experience to play in the latter. In the trainer market Thales has supplied avionics systems for South Africa’s Hawks and is working on an Alpha Jet upgrade for the French air force. This program, covering new navigation and display systems, will adapt the Alpha Jets to the training requirements of the near future, in which the end “product” will go on to fly the latest fighters such as the Rafale.