With billions of new contracts, the French Rafale fighter is making a comeback

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The sale of 80 Rafale fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates was not only deemed “historic”, but it also appeared to confirm the continued commercial success of the French fighter jet, a twin-jet capable of operating from land or land. an aircraft carrier. .

The agreement signed on December 3 by France for the sale of 80 Rafale fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has been described as “historic” by French Defense Minister Florence Parly. The CEO of the manufacturer of Rafale Dassault Aviation, Eric Trappier, also said he was delighted with this agreement, which he described as “the most important contract ever obtained by the French military aviation industry”. Trappier was naturally euphoric as Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyane signed the € 16 billion deal (including € 2 billion for weapons), a record for the aircraft manufacturer French.

For Dassault – but also for Thales (the company that supplies all of the Rafale’s internal electrical systems), Safran (which supplies the engines) and several hundred other subcontractors – the agreement means guaranteed activity for more than six years. years. It takes at least a month to build a Rafale.

80 Burst. Signature of a historic contract with the United Arab Emirates. A strategic partnership that is stronger than ever. Proud to see French industrial excellence at the top.

– Florence Parly (@florence_parly) December 3, 2021

Phoenix rising from the ashes?

The sale – which is also good economic news for French President Emmanuel Macron, just over four months from the next presidential election – further strengthens the Rafale’s reputation as the “phoenix” of military aviation.

During its more than 25 years of existence, the jet has faced challenges and emerged in different variations. Presented as one of the most advanced fighters when it was created, the Rafale struggled to sell abroad.

Negotiations for the sale of Rafale fighters have dragged on for more than a decade, with Abu Dhabi publicly rejecting France’s offer to supply 60 planes in 2011 as “uncompetitive and unworkable”.

Until 2015, Dassault Aviation was fighting an uphill battle – and it wasn’t for lack of trying. Whether in Brazil, India or the United Arab Emirates (negotiations had been underway with Abu Dhabi since 2008), the Rafale was deemed too expensive: its selling price was around 100 million euros, not to mention its maintenance costs, which were “among the highest on the market”, according to a report published by the University of Toulon in 2011. Its competitors, such as the multinational Eurofighter, Swedish fighters Gripen and American jets, often sell less of 100 million euros.

In fact, the French plane was locked in a vicious cycle: Dassault Aviation needed more orders before economies of scale allowed it to sell at a lower price, but countries were reluctant to commit to buying in. because of the price. And sales of the plane to the French army alone would never be large enough.

Finally, the Rafale demonstrated its usefulness in Libya and Afghanistan as the first decade of the 2000s drew to a close, sparking more international interest. Its performance in combat conditions was the tipping point, according to the business daily La Tribune.

In 2015, Egypt became the first buyer of Rafale outside the French army, buying around 20 planes. Other contracts followed – with India, Qatar, Greece and Croatia – until the UAE this week became the sixth member of the Rafale’s foreign customer club.

This latest contract now allows more Rafale to be sold abroad than in France (236 international sales compared to 192 domestic).

Long shadow of the American F-35

But the rebirth of the Rafale – once described as a “cursed aircraft” and now considered a success story – is not so impressive when viewed in the context of the broader international arms market, said Alexandre Vautravers. , weapons expert and editor-in-chief of Swiss Military. Revision (RMS). “This achievement is still well below what direct competition – starting with the American F-35 from Lockheed Martin – announced at the same time,” he told AXADLETM.

Lockheed Martin has already sold nearly 1,000 F-35s around the world, not counting orders from the US military itself. And more orders mean that the American manufacturer can do what Dassault Aviation cannot: lower its price. The F-35A model costs less than $ 80 million (€ 70 million).

This leaves the Rafale in an awkward position. The F-35 is cheaper, newer (it has only been in service for 15 years) and “40% more efficient, according to Swiss authorities’ estimates,” Vautravers explained.

The two planes occupy the same market niche: multi-purpose or “omni-purpose” combat aircraft, to use the official jargon of Dassault Aviation. During a single mission, they are able to establish air superiority – the traditional mission of fighter jets – as well as conduct bombing and ground support operations.

But the F-35 is also a stealth fighter plane, which is not the case with the Rafale, and has greater autonomy.

A geopolitical weapon?

The main asset of the French plane is strategic.

“The Rafale’s biggest selling point is that it sidesteps any possible US embargo,” Vautravers said. It is better not to depend solely on the United States for defense equipment in case Washington imposes economic sanctions. “Rafales – like Russian systems – allow people to diversify,” he said.

Overall, the Rafales are selling better now “because there is a growing market,” Vautravers said. The real test to assess the performance of the French aircraft in a competitive market is to look at the countries where Dassault has found new buyers.

Most of Rafale’s sales were made “in countries that had already bought French planes,” he said. Egypt, Greece and the United Arab Emirates have all signed to renew their French fleets. Even India already had French fighter planes. France has failed to attract new customers, only to keep the old ones.

The negotiations underway to sell 36 French planes to Indonesiq are therefore essential for Dassault, because an agreement would finally bring France a brand new customer.

This article has been translated from the original into French.

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