International Arms Transfers: Explaining Rafale’s (Belated) Success

When France slammed the door of the multinational Eurofighter program in the early 1980s, everyone expected to see the French paying the hard price for their notorious obsession about sovereignty. Paris wanted a next-generation multi-role fighter-jet suitable for carrier use and nuclear deterrence, and entirely designed by national companies. As expected, a 2010 governmental report on defence budget established a €40 billion total cost for the Rafale program[1], a substantial amount of money for a country like France, whose 2014 defence budget reached €47 billion.[2] Since then, critics pointed to outstanding cost per unit and inability to export the plane. However, the past few months have seen a sudden infatuation for the French designed aircraft, with three deals signed almost back-to-back with Egypt, Qatar, and India for a total of 84 units. 2015 might be Rafale’s year, for the great benefit of French arms industry. Yet, a combination of factors is hidden behind this commercial success, and gives in fact little hope to reproduce in the near future for France.

Image courtesy of Corentin Foucaut © 2013, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Corentin Foucaut © 2013, some rights reserved.

To explain recent export successes of Rafale aircrafts, one must first consider the object itself. Two elements will appear then. First, despite already ten years of activity in the French Air Force, Rafale aircraft system is still a cutting-edge technology which does not suffer much from international comparison in terms of performance. When the Rafale program was launched in the 1980s to replace Dassault’s best-seller Mirage 2000, the plane was designed for multi-mission capabilities; air-superiority, denial, air-to-ground strike and nuclear deterrence are among the impressive range of missions that the French company boasts for its fighter-jet. Second, the past few years have seen intensive Rafale implication in armed conflicts, most notably in Afghanistan, Libya, the Sahel, and Iraq/Syria, with demonstrated capabilities of long-distance flights and aircraft carrier take off. Proved performances of reliability and efficiency had a role in the recent commercial success of the aircraft, explained Dassault CEO Eric Trappier in a June 2015 interview.[3]

These elements certainly played in favour of Rafale’s commercial success, but cannot explain it fundamentally. The French fighter-jet, since its first operational deployment in the French Air Force in 2006, has always been penalised by one decisive factor: its cost of over €80 million per unit. The French Defence Ministry’s requirements were so high for replacing the Mirage 2000 model that Rafale aircraft accumulated a critical number of cutting-edge equipments: composite manufactured fuselage, two turbojet engines, multi-target electronic scanning radar, and a specially developed Thales Optronic recognition system Reco NG in service since 2010. Besides, Dassault’s production is limited to 11 aircrafts per year, further increasing the cost per unit. Resultantly, Rafale finds itself in a difficult in-between vis-à-vis its major international competitors. General Dynamics F-16 competes on the same multi-role segment, and benefits from scale economies when more minimalist fighter-jets, like Saab’s Gripen, are sometimes preferred by financially constrained countries, like it was the case in 2013 with Brazil.

An explanation for Rafale’s recent success must then be found elsewhere. Each recipient, namely Egypt, Qatar, and India, presents a unique mixture of explanatory elements sometimes difficult to connect to each other. A case-by-case approach is the best method to find out why 2015 fighter-jet market has been dominated by Rafale. But it should be said that the central element is the political factor.

When Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French Defence Minister, and Mr Trappier attended last 16 February 2015 the contract signing ceremony in Cairo, they put an end to 13 years of disappointment for France aeronautic industry. Egypt agreed to buy 24 aircrafts, of whom 16 two-seater Rafale B and eight single-seater Rafale C, for €5.2 billion. The deal also included MBDA missiles and a DCNS multi-mission frigate. Rafale acquisitions by Egypt are debatable from a military perspective, since the Egyptian Air Force already possesses 228 multi-missions F-16 Fighting Falcon and keeps close relations with its American supplier. Nevertheless, diversification of supply is a rather common strategy for important arms importers, and Egypt is no exception. Besides, Egypt is seen both by France and the United States as a rampart against terrorism in North Africa. Paris is henceforth committed to boost Egyptian military capabilities, as can prove the recent reselling of two DCNS Mistral-class ships, originally destined to Russia, to Egypt.

Egypt’s Rafale deal was soon to know a twin when Qatar announced on 30 April 2015 its decision to buy 24 fighter-jets in a $7 billion deal. Geopolitical factors certainly played a role, with ongoing conflicts in Yemen, Libya and Syria. But even more than Egypt, Qatar proved the importance of political ties in military acquisitions. In addition to soaring tensions in the region and the inherent qualities of Rafale, French diplomatic activism allegedly tipped the balance to convince Qatar. Illustratively, the deal was signed on 4 May 2015 in Doha in presence of François Hollande, the French president. Theses ties are ancient, though, as can prove the long-lasting partnership between Qatar and Dassault, who successively supplied Mirage F1, Alpha Jet, and Mirage 2000 models to the Gulf state since 1980.

India’s acquisition of Rafale jets followed a longer and more tortuous path. The story began in February 2012, when Dassault won the tender offer against the Eurofighter for a jumbo 126 aircrafts, $12 billion valued contract. France and India entered then in complex negotiations about offsets and technology sharing included in the deal package. Mr Hollande’s administration, in power since May 2012, tried to revitalise the process in mid-2013 by reaffirming ‘current and future co-operation in the areas of defence equipment and technology collaboration’[4] in a joint statement. But the decisive step was taken by India’s President Narendra Modi during a visit to France the 10 April 2015. The deal was entirely reshuffled with the announcement of a 36 Rafale aircrafts delivery to India, ‘in fly-away conditions as quickly as possible.’[5] Limited offset agreements were concluded beginning of November 2015, said to be near the 50 per cent of the deal value requested by New Dehli, but quartered to the aerospace sector as preferred by France. Clearly, Mr Modi activism helped the Rafale deal. But the brand-new Rafale squadron of the Indian Air Force does not give by itself so many perspectives in terms of further bilateral cooperation and arms transfers between the two countries.

2015 is already considered as a record year for the French defence industry, with around $20 billion of exports. Such figures have not been seen in France since the mid-1980s. That being said, it must be noted that Rafale’s success is due to a window of opportunity it was able to seize, rather than a long-waited international recognition destined to last in time. Dassault is still trapped in a deadly purgatory already described, with a plane too expensive for most, and unfairly contested by cutting-edge American technologies for the others. Emergence of fifth generation fighter-jets, led by Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightning II program, will reinforce the dilemma for the French manufacturer. Nevertheless, proven capabilities and diplomatic activism will always play a role in arms transfers. And ongoing discussions with Belgium, the United Arab Emirates, Switzerland or Malaysia might potentially give further success to Rafale.

[1] Rapport public annuel 2010, Cour des comptes, Paris, February 2010.

[2] SIPRI Military Expenditure Database.

[3] Pierre Tran, “Interview : Dassault’s Eric Trappier,” Defense News, June 12, 2015.

[4] India and France Decide to Broaden Defence Co-Operation, Ministry of Defence, Government of India, 26 July 2013.

[5] India and France joint statement, The Elysee Palace, Paris, 11 April 2015.