Dogfight at the Casbah: Rafale vs. F-16
France’s Rafale is part of a set of European 4+ generation fighters that were developed and fielded during the 1990s-early 21st century, with the aim of surpassing both existing offerings among America’s “teen series” fighters, and Russia’s Mig-29 Fulcrum and SU-27/30 Flanker family. The French had originally discussed a consortium with Britain & Germany, but France’s insistence on carrier capabilities and accompanying weight limits, and their non-negotiable demand that it be in charge of any fighter project and allocate work sharing, created a competitor in the Eurofighter and forced Dassault to go it alone.
Morocco’s air force currently flies 2 squadrons of old F-5s, and 2 squadrons of slightly newer Mirage F1s. Their neighbor and rival Algeria flies MiG-23s of similar vintage, but adds far more modern and capable MiG-29s. The Force Aérienne Algérienne also flies SU-24 Fencer and SU-25 Frogfoot strike aircraft, and is set to receive 36 multi-role MiG-29SMTs and 30 multi-role SU-30MKs as part of a multi-billion dollar weapons deal with Russia. Morocco is looking for replacement aircraft that will prevent a complete overmatch, and initial reports pegged them as the Rafale’s first export customer. That competition has become a dogfight, however, and recent reports of a used F-16 buy mean the Rafale risks repeating an all-too familiar scenario. In part, says one report, because of French government screw-ups…
France has traditionally relied on exports to help finance ongoing fighter development, and the Rafale was no exception. Unlike its previous offerings, however, which have traditionally been lightweight fighters at the low to medium end of the cost scale, Rafale is a twin-engine offering positioned at the medium-high end of the cost and capabilities scale. This segment has historically seen far fewer aircraft buys around the world, and the Eurofighter Typhoon’s positioning as “the European choice” has undercut France in that richer market as well.
The result has been an aircraft that serves in France on land and sea, but has lost every export contest thus far: The Netherlands (probably F-35), Norway (F-35 JSF, JAS-39 Gripen, or Eurofighter), Singapore (F-15SG), and South Korea (F-15K). The Rafale is still a reported contender for sales in Saudi Arabia [since confirmed lost], and in India’s MMRCA competition, but neither of these potential contract wins is considered to have strong betting odds behind it. Despite Dassault’s rosy projections for the global fighter market, this difficulty in finding foreign orders has choked expected investments and started to feed back into platform modernization issues.
Une autre fois? We’ll see.
Updates & Developments
Dec 18/07: It’s official: Morocco is buying F-16s. Not used F-16s, either, but new F-16 C/Ds.
Oct 23/07: The FREMM frigate rumors, at least, prove true; Morocco will buy one.
Oct 21/07: Reuters Africa, “Sarkozy to push Rafale fighter on Moroccan visit“:
“French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he would try to persuade Morocco of the advantages of French Rafale jet fighters when he visits on Monday, despite signs Rabat has decided to buy cheaper U.S.-built F16s… “I personally want to offer Morocco the best of our expertise in this area and in other arms sectors. My ambition is to build cooperation in defence and armaments that will match our political partnership”…”
Oct 19/07: Les Echos reports (en Francais) that Morocco will be buying 16 used F-16s instead. They also have harsh words for the Chirac government and French agencies, who allegedly bungled the Rafale deal. Even if you don’t speak French, you’ll probably get the gist:
“A l’Ã©tÃ© 2006, Dassault remet une premiÃ¨re offre ferme portant sur 18 Rafale pour 1,8 milliard d’euros. Tout se prÃ©sente bien. Jusqu’au premier couac. Prudents, les Marocains sondent la DÃ©lÃ©gation gÃ©nÃ©rale de l’armement (DGA) pour connaÃ®tre les prix des Rafale vendus Ã l’armÃ©e de l’air franÃ§aise. Â« Habituellement, on s’arrange pour rÃ©pondre sans rÃ©pondre Ã ce genre de sollicitation Â», explique un bon connaisseur de l’institution. Rabat obtient pourtant (sur instructions de la DÃ©fense, selon nos informations) le prix franÃ§ais… qui s’avÃ¨re significativement infÃ©rieur Ã celui proposÃ© aux Marocains par Dassault. Fureur de l’avionneur et du client…”
Oops! As a sort of consolation prize, Morocco may be interested in 1-3 of the new Franco-Italian FREMM frigates at about EUR 500 million. This is mentioned in the Les Echos story, and in European Strategic Intelligence & Security Center reports on Oct 19 | Oct 15 which also raises the possibility that Morocco may buy used Karel Doornan Class frigates from the Netherlands. If the FREMM purchase is made, it is expected that there will be an announcement during President Sarkozy’s late October 2007 visit…
Sept 26/07: Jane’s Defence Weekly reports that:
“France appears to be losing hope of persuading Morocco to become the first foreign customer for its Rafale multirole fighter. This follows indications that the Moroccan government has been deeply tempted by a US offer to supply it with less expensive F-16 fighters. French industry sources said last week that Morocco had been “within an inch” of signing a contract in May and June for 18 Rafales in a package worth EUR2.2 billion (USD3.1 billion) with manufacturer Dassault Aviation and its partners in the Rafale programme: Thales and engine-maker Snecma, a division of Safran…”
June 7/06: Agence France Presse reports that Morocco is negotiating with Dassault Aviation of France for the purchase of 12 – 18 Rafale combat planes, with possible financing from by Saudi Arabia. Those rumors surfaced again as the Le Bourget Paris Air Show 2007 approached.