At Americas’ Mercy: Why France’s ‘Highly Prized’ Rafale Fighter Jets Are Dependent On US Approvals For Their Export

It has not been an easy journey for the French Rafale fighters which have seen numerous roadblocks in their export to partner countries. It was only in 2015 when Dassault Aviation first won an export sale by signing a contract with Egypt. However, even that contract was not devoid of controversies.

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The French aerospace giant has since come a long way and has signed deals with multiple partners to deliver its domestically manufactured fighter, Rafale. It recently signed a contract with the UAE for supplying 80 F4 Rafales even as it remains in the process of completing the 30 Rafale sales to Egypt after a deal was signed earlier this year. Currently, the air forces of India, Qatar, Egypt operate the French Rafale with the UAE likely to join this league soon.

The first deal ever to export Rafale was a result of concerted negotiations between Egypt and France. In 2015, the then-French Defense Minister visited Cairo and signed a €5.2 billion deal for 24 Rafale fighters. The agreement was at the time widely criticized by Western countries and France had to draw the flak for selling warplanes to a country accused of human rights violations.

Dassault Rafale - Wikipedia
Dassault Rafale (via Wikipedia)

A more intriguing factor about this deal was that it included the possibility of buying 12 more Rafales over and above the mandated 24 twin-seat fighter jets. That option was included in the 2015 contract. The delivery of these additional 12 fighters was reportedly stalled by the United States.

According to the French publication La Tribune, a contract between Cairo and Paris to sell 12 Rafale jet fighters to Egypt had been stalled because the US refused to export a cruise missile component that was part of the fighter plane. The report had surfaced in February of 2018.

The delay in the sale, according to French insiders quoted by the paper, was due to a shortfall of the American component of the SCALP missiles, not a funding issue as had been the case in the past owing to the precarious economic situation in Egypt. The Egyptians were reluctant to buy the aircraft without these advanced SCALP missiles.

It further added that France had approved the transfer of SCALP missiles to Egypt, despite the US’ unwillingness. The US later dug its heel and obstructed the supply of these 12 additional fighters.

However, now Dassault is all set to supply 30 more Rafales to Egypt’s Air Force bringing the total number in its fleet to 54. And going by reports that appeared in Janes in February this year, the Egyptian military also showcased the SCALP missiles, the weapon system that had led to the derailment of the deal in 2018.

Is Rafale Truly Indigenous?

Although the French fighter Mirage 2000’s older weaponry, such as the MICA medium-range and Magic II air-to-air missiles, were developed in France, Rafale’s new generation of armaments, such as the SCALP missile and Meteor air-to-air missile, were developed in other countries as part of bigger programs.

This was due to their complexity, which made it difficult for any single European country’s relatively modest defense sector to create them.

Dassault Rafale Specifications (via Twitter)

Rafale is also significantly reliant on inputs from the US, in addition to other European countries. This became apparent as the US refused to provide American-built components as part of a longstanding policy of denying Egypt access to standoff weapons.

French Defense Minister Florence Parly had then stated in response: “We are at the mercy of the Americans when our equipment is concerned.”

Auxiliary power units, lighting systems, fuel nozzles, wheel brakes and brake controls, transducer, electro-optical and passive electronic components, cabin systems, canopies, fuel tank sealants, corrosion inhibitors, and various mechanical and electrical power systems were all supplied by American companies.

The F404 engine, which powers the F-18 Hornet, was also utilized in a few initial prototypes of Rafale. Unlike the Swedish Gripen E or the Indian Tejas, Rafale did not rely on foreign sensors or engines, but France was still a long way from full tactical aviation self-sufficiency at that time.

General Electric F404 – Wikipedia

Later in 2018, the French Defense Minister had informed a committee of National Assembly that “as Washington withholds certification for an American component on the French Scalp cruise missile, which prevents the sale of further Rafale fighter fighters to Egypt; France is aiming to minimize its reliance on US approval for French military exports.”

The option presented at the time was for the manufacturer of these missiles, MBDA, to engage in research and technology in order to be able to make an identical component, thus avoiding the International Traffic in Arms Regulation (ITAR).

During his state visit to Washington in April 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron reportedly tried to persuade his then-American counterpart, Donald Trump, to give clearance for the missile component. However, no breakthrough was achieved.

The committee was also informed that the French armed forces and the ministries of the economy and finance had produced a framework agreement that was to likely be used as a model for an intergovernmental arms deal backed by a public tender and following national and European legislation. It was believed that this would help France escape the intense watch of the Americans.

Before selling SCALP missiles to Egypt, the French government must obtain US approval, Eric Trappier, chairman and CEO of Dassault Aviation was reported as saying on the Rafale deal. The long-range weapon’s ability to function is dependent on certain US parts.

File Image: Engine of Rafale Fighters

There has been a dispute between the US and France over French arms sales to Middle-Eastern countries such as Egypt and the UAE in the past. The US had previously refused to transfer French components required to build surveillance satellites to the UAE in 2013.

The International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) is a US regulatory framework that restricts and controls the export of defense and military-related technologies in order to protect US national security and advance US foreign policy goals.

However, it is believed to have been used against allies and rivals alike, including in the SCALP missile issue.

SCALP Missiles

Photos of the SCALP cruise missile emerged earlier this year. The weapon was spotted during joint drills between French and Egyptian forces, reported Janes.

The SCALP was visible in a photograph as well as a video of the drill, issued by the Ministry of Defense. It was on display inside a hanger alongside other armaments, including a Rafale with a Talios targeting system.

The hangar appeared to be located at Gebel el-Basur Air Base, which is home to Egyptian Rafales and was utilized by the French Rafales and Mirage 2000s participating in the drill. To comply with the Missile Technology Control Regime, the range of an Egyptian SCALP would have to be decreased to less than 300 kilometers, according to Janes.

SCALP is a long-range, air-launched, stand-off assault missile designed primarily for the UK and French military forces by MBDA Systems of France. It’s based on the Apache anti-runway missile from MBDA Systems.

SCALP cruise missile built by MBDA (via Wikipedia)

The missile is designed to hit high-value fixed infrastructure such as airbases, radar sites, communications hubs, and port facilities. In every weather condition, day or night, the missile can precisely engage the targets. The SCALP is a stealthy missile thanks to its extended range and low attitude, as well as its subsonic speed.

The missile is designed to pierce hard rock targets deeply. It has fire-and-forget technology as well as fully autonomous guiding. The missile measures 5.1 meters in length, 3 meters in wingspan, and 0.48 meters in diameter. It weighs 1,300 kg and has a range of over 250 kilometers.

For improved control over the path and accurate target strike, the missile’s navigation system includes inertial navigation (INS), global positioning system (GPS), and terrain reference navigation. A passive imaging infrared seeker is installed on the missile.

A two-stage bomb royal ordnance augmented charge (BROACH) penetrator warhead is added to the missile. By cutting the target’s surface, the first stage of the warhead prepares the way for the second stage. The warhead’s larger second stage (main) then penetrates the target and detonates.

All these features of the missile were the main reason why the Egyptians were eager to secure their delivery in the face of American reticence. Given the volatile situation in the Middle-Eastern region, Rafales armed with these cruise missiles would have acted as a force multiplier.

Despite the Egyptian Ministry of Defense’s claim to the contrary, the country’s new Rafales are expected to be built to the latest F3-R standard, which the French armed services just declared fully operational. This is believed to boost the operational preparedness of the Egypt Air Force and help strengthen its defenses.