The French government pulled out of a Belgian tender, due on September 7, for the replacement of its F-16 fighter aircraft. Instead, Paris is offering the Dassault Rafale
as part of a military partnership that goes beyond the supply of weapons
. In addition to the 36 jets required by Brussels, the deal offers enhanced military cooperation between the two NATO countries, more training, and industrial and technical cooperation between companies on both sides. When asked about the new offer, manufacturer Dassault Aviation had no immediate comment, while the Belgian defence ministry said it would not comment until the process was finalised. Both Lockheed Martin and the Eurofighter consortium have submitted tenders to the original procurement program.
Will Dassault’s fighter become a fashionably late fighter platform that builds on its parent company’s past successes – or just “the late Rafale”? It all began as a 1985 break-away from the multinational consortium that went on to create EADS’ Eurofighter. The French needed a lighter aircraft that was suitable for carrier use, and were reportedly unwilling to cede design authority over the project. As is so often true of French defense procurement policy, the choice came down to paying additional costs for full independence and exact needs, or losing key industrial capabilities by partnering or buying abroad. France has generally opted for expensive but independent defense choices, and the Rafale was no exception.
Those costs, and associated delays triggered by the end of the Cold War and reduced funding, proved to be very costly indeed. Unlike previous French fighters, which relied on exports to lower their costs and keep production lines humming, the Rafale has yet to secure a single export contract – in part because initial versions were hampered by impaired capabilities in key roles. The Rafale may, at last, be ready to be what its vendors say: a true omnirole aircraft, ready for prime time on the global export stage. The question is whether it’s too late. Rivals like EADS’ Eurofighter, Russia’s Su-27/30 family, and the American “teen series” of F-15/16/18 variants are all well established. Meanwhile, Saab’s versatile and cheaper JAS-39 Gripen remains a stubborn foe in key export competitions, and the multinational F-35 juggernaut is bearing down on it.