Rafale Fighters Make Inroads Against U.S. Makers
AeroBD | The AERO news Company…Dhaka, Nov. 09, 2015 : With India likely to order three dozen Rafale combat jets in the coming months, and another export contract for the French fighter expected next year, Dassault Aviation has asked its supplier base to increase production based on an anticipated tripling of output by late 2018.
The move—a response to sudden interest in the Rafale outside of France—is somewhat of a gamble for Dassault.
New Delhi, which in March opted out of a 126-aircraft purchase from the French company in favor of a government-to-government sale of just 36 Rafales, has not yet signed. Qatar, which in May agreed to buy 24 Rafales for €6.3 billion ($6.8 billion), is late in making a down payment; and Egypt, whose €5.2-billion agreement includes 24 Rafales and a French frigate, is drawing its first six aircraft straight from Dassault’s Merignac production line, leaving a gap in planned inventory for the French armed forces that the company will have to make up.
“It is a measured risk. A success-oriented risk. And if we did not take this risk we would be obligated to delay deliveries,” says Dassault Aviation Chairman and CEO Eric Trappier.
“We had to do this,” he says, even if it ultimately means paying subcontractors for hardware Dassault does not need. “If it happens we don’t sign any of the contracts, we’ll put the brakes on the production rhythm.”
Trappier announced the uptick in Rafale production in July, shortly after the deal with Qatar was agreed to, and India gave a verbal commitment for the 36-Rafale purchase.
“This obviously presumes we have adjusted subcontracting production to meet that objective,” Trappier says. “We brought together the entire industrial production chain to explain to them our proposed schedule. And they’ve agreed to do what’s necessary.”
In the meantime, he says, negotiations in India have been tough, though he is optimistic that they will be completed by the end of this year. He says discussions surrounding industrial offsets are complex and ongoing.
“There will obviously be offsets; that has not escaped our attention,” he says, adding that Dassault could better support the nation’s “Make in India” strategy if New Delhi would buy more than 36 jets. “The more Rafales ordered, the more that can be done in-country. Very probably there will be more planes coming behind the 36-plane order, and I hope they will be Rafales.”
Beyond India, Trappier says he anticipates a fourth Rafale contract to be signed next year. Prospects include the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which is flying Dassault-built Mirage combat jets in support of operations against Yemen.
“We’ve improved our support and spare-parts relationship with their local industry, on behalf of local autonomy for that nation” Trappier says of the UAE. “For countries that are already using the Mirage, we have hopes of selling the Rafale, but I can’t tell you exactly where we are, or whether we’ll sign anything in three weeks or in three months.”
Trappier is also eyeing Canada, whose new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, has vowed to scrap the nation’s commitment to the U.S.-built F-35. Trappier said he recently wrote to Trudeau, congratulating him on his win and offering the Rafale in lieu of the Lockheed Martin fighter, should the new leader follow through on his campaign promise.
Belgium, which recently issued a request for information related to replacing its F-16 fighters, is another possibility. Trappier says Switzerland is also a prospect, albeit a long-term one. Although Berne is not currently searching for a new fighter, the fact that the Swiss will need to replace both their F-5 Tiger and F/A-18 Hornet fleets is not lost on Dassault, which is preparing for a possible competition there.
“They are faced with a double-renewal requirement, and they will probably proceed with a single order for the two replacement programs,” Trappier says. “Rafale is perfectly adapted to replace the totality of these planes and to all the missions that country is currently performing.”
Trappier says longer-term export prospects for the Rafale are looking up in places where France is making geo-political headway against competitors, most notably U.S. companies.
“There are situations where we can go into a country and make our best offer but have zero chances of winning,” he says, citing the Rafale’s loss to the F-35 in South Korea last year. “But the world is changing, and now the U.S. appears to be present a little differently around the world, which gives us more confidence to sell in environments we were not able to before. And this has been exploited to the max by French political authorities.”
Having at least two firm export deals under his belt has also eased Trappier’s indigestion when pitching the Rafale to potential buyers. “You can imagine that until recently I had recurring stomachaches,” he quips.