France Retires Mirage 2000C Fighters After Four Decades in Service: Just How Obsolete Were They?

On June 23 the French Air Force retired its final squadron of Mirage 2000C single engine lightweight fighters, a class which fist entered service in 1983 and represented France’s first from the fourth generation. The last unit to use the aircraft, the Escadron de Chasse 2/5, is expected to re-equip with newer ‘4+ generation’ Rafale fighters in 2024. The Mirage 2000 was considered to have little competition among non-U.S. and non-Soviet fourth generation fighters in the 1980s and 1990s in terms of performance, although it was still considered less capable than its closest equivalents from the two superpowers the American F-16 and Soviet MiG-29. The F-16 would outperform the Mirage comfortably on export markets, was less costly, and used a significantly more powerful engine which resulted in a better overall flight performance. The Mirage 2000’s primary deficiency, however, was that unlike the U.S. or Russia which would provide options to significantly modernise their equivalent aircraft, the Mirage 2000’s options for modernisation have been very limited leading the class to be considered obsolete far earlier. Examples of American and Russian packages include the MiG-29SMT/UPG and F-16V which include electronically scanned array radars, modern avionics and standoff weapons, and in the MiG’s case even new engines, 

As was common in the fourth generation, the Mirage 2000 was intended to be fielded as part of a high-low combination complemented by the heavyweight twin engine Mirage 4000 fighter. This would mirror the Su-27 and F-15’s roles as heavier complements to the MiG-29 and F-16 respectively, and China’s own later high-low combination with the J-11/16 and the J-10. The unaffordabilty of the Mirage 4000, however, combined with a lack of foreign interest, led to its cancellation with European states having exclusively produced light fighters ever since. Where the Mirage’s closest rival the F-16 would see a successor developed with fifth generation capabilities, the world’s first single engine stealth fighter the F-35, the inability of countries other than China and the U.S. to produce such aircraft before the 2020s meant that the Mirage 2000’s successor would represent a much more conservative improvement. When the Rafale entered service in 2001 it did so without an active electronically scanned array radar, with engines weaker than those of any other production fighter, and without stealth capabilities. Rafales would only begin to integrate air to air missiles with an engagement range exceeding 100km, namely the pan-European Meteor, from 2021 two to three decades behind its American, Russian and Chinese rivals. 

Despite being assigned air defence duties, the final Mirage 2000C squadron to leave service was among the most underwhelming in air to air combat among active fourth generation fighter units in the world. The fighters were armed only with Magic II short-range heat-seeking air-to-air missiles, meaning they had no beyond visual range capabilities whatsoever and were thus at a disadvantage even to third generation fighters such as Greek F-4E Phantoms or Syrian MiG-23MLDs. New variants of the F-16, meanwhile, field AIM-120D radar guided missiles with 160-180km ranges, while the newest fourth generation single engine fighter China’s J-10C uses PL-15 missiles with AESA radar guidance and an estimated 200-300km engagement range. These developments leave the large majority of French fighter units very far behind, and left the Escadron de Chasse 2/5 beyond obsolete. 

Even with radar guided weapons, the French squadron’s relatively weak radars which still use mechanically scanned arrays meant they would be highly susceptible to jamming and poorly placed to make effective use of standoff weapons. The first electronically scanned array radars for air to air combat were introduced in 1981 by the Soviet Air Force, leaving the French unit decades behind the times. Beyond its lack of radar guided missiles or viable sensors, the squadron’s Magic II is also effectively obsolete as a short ranged weapon with no helmet mounted sights or high off boresight capabilities meaning the Mirages would likely not last long even if they were engaged at close range. These short ranged capabilities were first fielded by Soviet fighters in the mid 1980s with the R-73 missile. With the retirement of the Escadron de Chasse 2/5 the French Air Force has thus retired one of the poorest fighter units in NATO, although whether the Rafales that replace them will come equipped with costly Meteor missiles, which are effectively France’s only non-obsolete standoff air to air weapon, remains to be seen.