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Big French-Indian arms deal shows signs of bad timing

India and France are reported to be ready to conclude India's largest-ever foreign arms purchase, a $3.3 billion contract for 150 Mirage 2000 fighter aircraft.

These aircraft will help India maintain its current 3-to-1 edge in air superiority over Pakistan, its neighbor and nemesis, Western military observers says.

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The supersonic French aircraft is popularly seen here as India's answer to the F-16 fighter bombers that the United States plans to sell to Pakistan.

The proposed F-16 sales, now pending in Congress, and an additional $3.2 billion US military and economic aid package for Pakistan have created a furor here and produced charges that the US is triggering an arms race on the subcontinent.

However, India has been negotiating with France for the Mirage 2000 for the past two years, both Indian and Western defense analysts point out, as part of a five-year armed forces modernization program.

''It's not something that has just come up as a reaction to the F-16s going to Pakistan,'' said a Western military observer.

Recent Indian acquisitions of MIG-23 fighters and MIG-25 reconnaissance planes from the Soviet Union also predated the US offer of F-16s to Pakistan, said the military observer, who declined to be identified by name or nationality.

Reports from Paris, where French defense officials received an Indian military team this past week, indicate that the Mirage 2000 contract may be ready for signing during Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's state visit to France beginning Nov. 12.

If so, the timing will be somewhat awkward for India. Earlier that same week (Nov. 9), the International Monetary Fund's executive board will meet to consider India's application for an unprecedented $5.7 billion loan to help ease its balance-of-payments difficulties.

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Unlike India's arms purchases from the Soviet Union, which are repayable in Indian rupees, the French deal is expected to be repayable in hard currency.

India's largest previous foreign arms deal was a $1.6 billion agreement last year with the Soviet Union, its major outside arms supplier, for updated weaponry for all three branches of the Indian armed services.

Citing India's current inventory of combat aircraft - 614 to Pakistan's 220, according to the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies - Western military observers set the Indo-Pakistan air superiority balance in India's favor by 3 to 1.

With Jaguars, MIG-23s, and MIG-25s still coming in from previous orders, and with the Mirage 2000 deal in sight, India will clearly maintain its 3-to-1 air superiority ratio in the face of the planned sale of 40 F-16s to Pakistan, declares an analyst.

The Indian military sets its air superiority estimate at only 2 to 1, contending that men and equipment tied up on the Chinese border could not be deployed against Pakistan.

''Hogwash,'' commented a Western military analyst, who said the Indian argument had merit for ground forces only.

''Nearly all the planes India has could be moved against Pakistan quickly.''

India and Pakistan have fought three wars in their 34 years of independence from Britain, and both continue to share a deep suspicion of each other's motives and intentions.

India's fears have been heightened by the long-range strike capabilities of the F-16 fighters, which could, according to Western military observers, hit deeper into India than any plane Pakistan now possesses.

Indian planes can strike nearly all of Pakistan now, analysts note, but a new Pakistani advantage would be the ability to reach and return from such key Indian facilities as nuclear installations near Bombay and the offshore Bombay High oil field.

Seen as matches for the F-16's capabilities are the Mirage 2000s - expected to be available around 1984-85 - and the fighter versions of the Soviet MIG-25s, also reportedly under consideration in Indian defense circles.

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