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Rafale: the doomed French bird

Guillem Monsonis, Researcher at the French Institute of Geopolitics, is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • May 14, 2009

    Is the French 4th+generation fighter aircraft doomed? This question must be anguishing people in Dassault and the French government. The Rafale has not won any contract in the export market since its entry into service in 2004 and is now apparently out of race for the MMRCA contract. What lies behind all these repeated commercial fiascos? The Rafale lost five major bids against its US counterparts in recent years: in South Korea (2002), Singapore (2005), Saudi Arabia (2007), Morocco (2007) and apparently India. First, the price matters: the Rafale is one of the most expensive multirole aircraft in the market, with a price estimated at 67 million US dollars, compared to 38,5 million dollars for the MiG-35 and around 60 million for the F-16IN offered to India. Nevertheless, most of the time, the true reasons hardly find mention in official statements and need a global analysis of what makes the Rafale difficult to sell, especially in India.

    First, is there any technological reason which explains the difficulties to sell it?

    To ascertain the technological disadvantage of the Rafale, it is necessary to compare it with its most deadly competitors in recent bids, in this case the American F-15 Eagle and F-16 Falcon. If the Rafale suffers from a less performing PESA radar (against US APG-80 and 63 AESA radars), the French fighter outclasses its opponents in most of the other domains, especially in stealth capabilities (its Radar Cross Section is more than 50% inferior than the F-16 Block 52 and inferior to the Block 60 offered to India), flight performance (better low speed capabilities, higher alpha limits, higher rate of climb and acceleration…) and survivability in high threat environments (thanks to its SPECTRA integrated defensive aids suite). Consequentially, it is not technological inferiority that could explain its poor export record. The technological superiority of the Rafale vis-a-vis its American rivals is however shadowed by its inferior operational record in recent conflicts, as opposed to the extensive engagements of the Falcons and Eagles in Iraq, Kosovo or Afghanistan. In this respect, the Rafale suffers a clear disadvantage with its combat-proven predecessors of the Mirage 2000 family.

    Second, does the Rafale suffer bad marketing in a changed environment?

    Political factors may explain repeated failures in the export market, but are Dassault and the French government really pushing to sell their technological jewel? French military products are no more in the same strategic context they were a few decades ago, when the Mirage was the only alternative to the US or Soviet fighters and their unwanted associated political linkages with each Cold War superpower. With the de-ideologization of Russian military products and the emergence of countries asking for state-of-the-art technologies, France is no longer in a comfortable position as an ‘independent choice’ vis a vis those potential buyers. In the case of the Indian bid, two more elements seem to have played an important role. First, the Rafale is probably a victim of its poor export record. The fact that France is the only operator is perceived as a limitation in terms of availability of sources for upgrades and even weapons compatibility. Acting as a vicious circle, its premature elimination from the MMRCA bid before the flight trials may have compromised its potential success in future contracts expected with the UAE, Libya, Brazil or Switzerland. Secondly, for India, choosing the Rafale would mean, given the recent complete upgrade of the Mirage 2000 fleet, an excessive strategic reliance on France when the political imperatives to engage the US in a strategic partnership and the desire to keep strong defense ties with Russia are driving Indian defense diplomacy.

    Given this political background, France should have lobbied hard to promote its product with the Indian political and military establishment. It seems that such a push was not made in order to promote the Rafale against its US and Russian competitors. Worse, some Indian commentators have criticized the ‘French arrogance’ with which Dassault has been communicating with Indian officials and the media in the last few years while marketing the Rafale for the MMRCA contract. For example, the repeated physical absences of the aircraft in Aero India Expos for the last three years have been perceived negatively in India which probably was not taken note of by Dassault and the French government. Given the sensitivity of such a subject, an attempt to find any valid explanations for getting eliminated so early raises more questions than answers. But whatever may be the ‘true’ reason, the marketing of Dassault in any case has been far inferior to the spectacular display of Boeing and Lockheed Martin. One of the reasons may lie in the excellent business records in civil aviation jets (the Falcon family) of the French manufacturer which may have oriented its efforts towards civil aviation, a more short term lucrative market without the political and administrative strings that are associated with international military sales. In many sectors, promotion and marketing have been the first victims of last year’s economic slowdown. To add to its woes is a lack of communication and cooperative efforts between Dassault and the French government, a repetition of what happened in Morocco.

    If the French genius has once again given birth to a technological marvel, the problem, for the Rafale and for Dassault, lies in the fact that when it comes to commercial skills and influence, the genius lies on the other side of the Atlantic. If the rumors of the elimination of the Rafale are right, it is time for Dassault and the French government to take note of this and prepare for the next contract efficiently to match its technological capabilities with greater marketing and political skills.