F-15EX Air Superiority Fighters Face Assault From Dassault; After Qatar & UAE, Saudi Mulls French Rafale Jets

Saudi Arabia has commenced talks with French manufacturer Dassault Aviation on the potential purchase of 54 Rafale fighter aircraft. The Gulf nation has requested Dassault Aviation SA to provide a proposal for a possible agreement by November 10, French newspaper La Tribune reported, citing undisclosed sources.

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This marks the first time the country is considering the acquisition of French military aircraft. The report said that the French company is approaching the prospective deal cautiously due to the long-standing preference of the Royal Saudi Air Force for F-15 jets produced by Boeing and planes from the Eurofighter consortium, which includes BAE Systems Plc, Airbus Defense and Space in Germany, and Leonardo SpA. 

Riyadh has been the primary export customer for the Eurofighter, with discussions in progress for an order of 48 jets. Saudi Arabia’s present inventory includes 72 Typhoon fighter aircraft.

However, following the incident involving journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018, Germany suspended approvals for arms sales to the oil-rich nation.

On the contrary, the United Kingdom is open to finalizing the Eurofighter deal with Saudi Arabia. In April, a UK Ministry of Defence spokesperson stated that the Royal Saudi Air Force has effectively utilized Typhoon aircraft for many years. 

The spokesperson said the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia may decide to acquire more Typhoon aircraft or upgrade its existing fleet to align with its capability requirements. The spokesperson added that London is prepared to offer full support and collaborate closely with the Eurofighter Partner Nations on this endeavor.

With Berlin’s reluctance to endorse the deal, the agreement seems to be at a standstill, prompting Saudi Arabia to consider alternative options. 

Recent reports indicated that Saudi Arabia is also interested in becoming a partner in the Global Combat Air Program alongside the UK, Japan, and Italy. 

This collaborative initiative aims to develop the sixth-generation stealth fighter jet and other cutting-edge technologies to achieve these advancements by 2035. 

As per the recent report of French media, the potential procurement entails 54 Rafale fighter jets, surpassing Saudi Arabia’s intended acquisition of Eurofighter fighters, which stands at 48. 

However, the report does not delve into the financial aspects of such an agreement. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s solicitation for a quote for 54 jets indicates its pursuit of the Rafale as a potential substitute for additional Eurofighters. 

It is also possible that this request serves as a strategic move on Riyadh’s part, potentially exerting leverage to pressure the UK into convincing Germany to reconsider its position, thereby avoiding the risk of losing a profitable sale to a competitor. 

A Major Setback For Lockheed Martin?

Saudi Arabia is interested in acquiring the fifth-generation F-35 fighter jet. However, multiple reports indicate that the US government may only approve such a sale if Saudi Arabia agrees to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. 

There are also concerns that Israel might be uncomfortable with allowing fifth-generation fighter jets to be delivered to Saudi Arabia. 

The foundations of the US-Saudi relationship have recently weakened, with the United States becoming less reliant on Saudi oil and Riyadh expressing decreased confidence in Washington’s protection. 

Consequently, the Saudi kingdom might be inclined to depart from its long-standing practice of exclusively utilizing American and British fighter jets in favor of the French Rafales.

Such a shift in Saudi Arabia’s aircraft procurement strategy would significantly setback US aircraft manufacturer Lockheed Martin. Lockheed Martin had also lost a major deal with another Arab nation, the United Arab Emirates (UAE). 

File:طائرة F15 SA السعودية.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Saudi Arabian F-15- Wikimedia Commons

The critical obstacle hindering the advancement of agreements for Arab nations to acquire advanced American fighter jets is the imposition of conditions set by the United States. 

In December 2021, expressing discontent with these preconditions, the United Arab Emirates halted a significant agreement to purchase fifth-generation F-35 Lightning II stealth jets. Without delay, the UAE shifted its attention to France and, in the end, solidified a historic deal for 80 Dassault Rafales. 

Meanwhile, with Dassault Aviation securing multiple export orders for its Rafale fighter jets in recent years, the potential procurement of 54 Rafales by Saudi Arabia stands to reinforce France’s position in the Middle Eastern defense market and consolidate the Rafale’s reputation as a highly sought-after combat aircraft in the region. 

Egypt was the first Middle Eastern nation to acquire Rafale jets in 2015. It later expanded its fleet with an additional purchase in 2021, bringing the total number of aircraft to 54.

Following a similar path, Qatar chose the Rafale in 2015 and subsequently added 36 of these French fighter jets to its arsenal in 2017. 

Recent reports suggest that Qatar is contemplating the firming up of options for an additional 36 aircraft, further emphasizing the growing popularity of the Rafale in the Middle East.

Late last year, it was reported that Saudi Arabia even considered the possibility of purchasing a substantial number of Rafale aircraft, potentially ranging from 100 to 200 units.

Moreover, the French 4.5-generation fighter jet is actively participating in the 114 Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA) tender for the Indian Air Force, where it appears to be the leading and the most favored option for procurement.