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.