Once Called A ‘Cursed Aircraft’, How Dassault Rafale Jets ‘Rose From The Ashes’ & Salvaged The French Pride

Once called a “cursed aircraft”, the Dassault Rafale has now transformed into one of the most sought-after fighter jet brands in the world. The recent agreement between France and the UAE for the purchase of 80 Rafales has enhanced the reputation and credibility of the French jets.

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There were times when the French political leadership had to engage in extensive dialogue and negotiations to obtain a single export order. On several occasions, the fighter jet came close to landing the first export order, just to fall short at the last stage. However, there’s no denying that the Dassault Rafale is now on a roll. 

File:Rafale at Aero India 2017.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Rafale at Aero India 2017 (Wikipedia Commons)

Despite its long inability to attract overseas customers, the 4.5 generation “omni-role” fighter jet is now getting a lot of traction in the market owing to operational capabilities.

The first prototype of Rafale that made its maiden flight in July 1986 was hailed as a truly modern combat aircraft. Its powerful electronic surveillance and jammer technology, as well as electronically scanned radar, made it a world-class jet. 

Dassault Rafale – The Early Setbacks

Dassault was initially unable to export the Rafale outside of France. The company’s Mirage jets were popular in the 1970s, but Rafale did not have the same success. The fact that it was more expensive than its American rivals was a key hurdle to its export prospects. 

According to a paper published by the University of Toulon in 2011, Rafale’s market value was around €100 million, putting it among the costliest fighter jets in the world. Its rivals such as European Eurofighter, Swedish Gripen, and American jets, usually sell for less than €100 million. 

France is said to have spent more than $50 billion on Rafale’s development, a large sum for a country that spends approximately $60 billion on defense each year. This had become a major issue during then-President Nicolas Sarkozy’s tenure as the country was facing economic hardship. 

Since 2006, France has been flying the Rafale fighters, which proved their combat capabilities in Afghanistan, Libya, and Mali.

Dassault suffered setbacks in Brazil, Libya, Morocco, and Switzerland after Rafale failed to edge out the competitors. It suffered a series of failures in export tenders, exacerbating the situation to the point where, in 2011, France’s defense minister indicated that if foreign purchasers do not emerge, production of the Rafale fighter jet could be halted.

M88 Engine Rafale – Via Dassault Aviation

The Republic of Korea picked the F-15K Slam Eagle over rivals like Dassault in 2002. The worries about compatibility with US aircraft, the discussion with the Canadian defense department was halted in 2005. In the same year, after a tight race, Singapore picked the F-15SG Strike Eagle.

A sale to Morocco in 2007 fell through in favor of the F-16C/D. In 2011, Switzerland picked the Gripen, while Oman ordered 12 Typhoons in 2012.

Brazil chose the Gripen in 2013 after a five-year selection process. All these were considered as a major disappointment for France, as countries were picking the F-15K Slam Eagle, F-15SG Strike Eagle, F-16C/D, Gripen, and Typhoon over the Rafale. 

Egypt A Savior

In 2015, France finally secured a buyer for its Rafale fighter jet after years of hunting. Egypt ordered 24 planes, announced by then-President Francois Hollande, in a transaction worth 5.2 billion euros ($5.9 billion). In May 2021, Cairo bought another 30 aircraft from France, taking the total number of Rafales with the Egyptian Air Force to 54. 

Rafales in flight – Dassault Aviation

The Egyptian Defense Ministry then stated that the new acquisition would be paid through a loan over a period of at least 10 years, but provided no other specifics.

The new Rafales were worth around $4.5bn. Dassault won the contract over the F-16 as Egypt’s most sophisticated fighter. This was a significant development as Egypt has had a long-standing special relationship with the F-16s, and is the world’s fourth-largest operator of the Fighting Falcon.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Egypt is the world’s third-largest weapons importer, behind Saudi Arabia and India. Its arms sales have increased by 136% in the last decade, and it has expanded its procurement beyond the United States, ordering military equipment from France, Germany, and Russia.  

The Rafale deal sparked concerns regarding the human rights abuses by Egypt, however, French President Emmanuel Macron said he would not link the transfer of weapons to Egypt with human rights issues because he did not want to jeopardize Cairo’s ability to combat regional threats.

Dassault Bagged A Series Of Deals 

Qatar’s air force modernization program began in 2015. It agreed to purchase 24 Rafale multi-role jets from Dassault Aviation for $6 billion. In 2018, another 12 Rafales were ordered, bringing the total number of Rafales to 36. Qatar also has the option of purchasing 36 more Rafales.

Greece became the first European buyer of the French Rafales in January 2021, when it struck a $2.8 billion deal to purchase 18 fighter planes. Greece will purchase 12 second-hand jets from the French Air Force inventory and 6 new jets by the end of 2022 under the terms of the arrangement. 

As previously reported by EurAsian Times, France and Croatia have also inked a deal to buy 12 Rafale fighters for nearly one billion euros.

The state-to-state deal includes the transfer of 12 Rafale fighter planes and their components from the French Air Force as well as training for the Croatian Air Force. The logistics support contract will cover all resources and additional spare parts for these aircraft over the period of three years.

Rafale Fighters For India

In 2015, Indian PM Narendra Modi announced the historic defense deal with Dassault Aviation to buy 36 Rafale fighter jets. Worldwide manufacturers had participated in India’s lucrative air force tender.

Lockheed Martin’s F-16s, Boeing’s F/A-18s, the Eurofighter Typhoon, Russia’s MiG-35, Saab’s Gripen, and Dassault’s Rafale were among the bidders. The IAF tested each of these aircraft, and two of them — the Eurofighter Typhoon and the Dassault Rafale — were shortlisted after a thorough review of the bids. 

Dassault won the deal to supply 126 fighter jets because it was the lowest bidder and the planes were said to be easy to maintain. In 2012, the Indian side and Dassault began discussions after Rafale was awarded the contract. Initially, India planned to purchase 126 jets, but the number was reduced to 36 later.

In addition, Dassault is being considered a strong competitor for IAF’s MMRCA 2.0 contract where it is again pitted against the same competitors and is touted as IAF’s favorite.

Even the Indian Navy is also looking for multirole combat fighter jets and is reportedly considering combining the procurement tender along with the IAF tender for 114 fighters that is underway.

French Air Force Rafale B in flight – Dassault Aviation

The Rafale Marine (Naval version of Rafales) is up against F-18 Super Hornets for the Indian Navy contract. The Request for Interest (RFI) for Naval fighters was issued in January 2017 after long delays and technical glitches in building the indigenous HAL-Tejas for the Navy.

UAE Becomes The Biggest Buyer 

Dassault Aviation has received a massive order from the UAE for 80 Rafale multirole fighter jets. The contract had been in the works for quite some time, with the Emiratis’ interest in the Rafale extending back to at least 2009.

The Rafale contract is worth a total of $16 billion, including the cost of additional weaponry for the planes. These contracts are part of a wider $19 billion French arms package for the UAE, which includes 12 Airbus H225M Caracal military transport helicopters.

“This contract is the result of total mobilization by Dassault Aviation alongside the Emirates Air Force and comes on the back of a more than 45-year-long relationship of trust between the United Arab Emirates and our company, built on the Mirage family of fighter aircraft, particularly the Mirage, whose modernization began two years ago,” Dassault said in a statement to the press. 

The UAE Air Force and Air Defense will be the first export recipient of the F4-standard Rafale. The Rafale’s current F4 version is part of a continual improvement process, and it’s tailored for networked combat, with new satellite and intra-flight data links, as well as a communication server and software-defined radio. 

Apart from that, the radar, electro-optical system, and helmet-mounted display have all been upgraded on the F4. The Mica NG air-to-air missile and the 2,200-pound version of the AASM modular air-to-ground weapon are among the new weapons being integrated. Although some of the F4 standard’s functions are projected to be available as early as next year, the standard is scheduled to be completely operational by 2024.

The contract with the UAE is a boon to the French aerospace industry, particularly the Rafale fighter, which now has six foreign buyers.

In addition, Dassault Aviation was trapped in an endless loop and it needed more orders before economies of scale allowed it to sell at a lower price, but countries were hesitant to commit due to the high cost. With the UAE’s order of 80 jets, Dassault Aviation will be able to offer more attractive proposals to other potential buyers. 

Indonesia: A Potential Customer Of Rafales?

Another potential client that has recently been linked is Indonesia. Although France does not have a long tradition of substantial arms transfers to Indonesia, the country’s military industry has been making advances in recent years, including the delivery of eight more Airbus Helicopters H225M combat search and rescue helicopters to the Indonesian Air Force in 2019.

It is apparent that the country is anxious to add a new fighter to its arsenal to help modernize them. The Indonesian Air Force’s fighter fleet consists of eight F-16A/B Block 15OCU fighters that were delivered in 1989, as well as 23 upgraded F-16C/Ds. One of them crashed in 2015. 

In addition to this US-supplied aircraft, the Indonesian Air Force operates five single-seat Su-27SKs, two twin-seater Su-30MKs and nine twin-seater Su-30MK2s. The latest multi-role, single-seat Su-35 variant was expected to be purchased by Jakarta, and a $1.1 billion agreement for 11 aircraft was reportedly signed in July 2017.

The United States, on the other hand, is said to have pressed Jakarta to abandon the Moscow agreement, threatening sanctions in the process. In such a case, Indonesia might opt for the Rafales.

Rafale Does Not Face Any US Hurdle

The Rafale jet’s main attraction is that it avoids any potential American blockade. The United States sells weapons under very rigorous terms, including how and where they should be used. The fact that the French are often fiercely independent in comparison to some of the larger countries may offer a Rafale user an edge.

Despite the fact that other arms manufacturers, particularly American manufacturers, have endeavored to lower costs and increase political consensus by developing global supply chains, France wants to keep its own military-industrial base.

The French taxpayer will pay more as a result, but the Air Force around the world may regard this as a benefit: rather than worrying about maintaining connections with a number of nations, nearly all of the components for the Rafale are sourced within France, easing logistics.

The Eurofighter is a collaborative effort involving four different production lines. This could result in a lot of complications down the road for someone like India, especially when New Delhi may demand the establishment of a manufacturing line, local production, or transfer of technology. France, thus, has a clear advantage over someone like Eurofighter or SAAB.