May 18, 2013:
France has again cut the number of Rafale jet fighters it will buy, from 234 to 225. Originally, France planned to buy 294 Rafales but only 200 have actually been ordered so far and about 120 delivered. Four have been lost due to accidents. Seven years ago the French Air Force activated its first squadron of Rafale fighters.
The navy had received ten navalized Rafales five years before that, for service on the nuclear aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle. The French Navy is upgrading its ten early model Rafale F-1 fighters to the F-3 standard. This means the upgraded aircraft will be able to conduct ground attack operations (deliver smart bombs and air-to-ground missiles) and carry nuclear weapons. Such upgrades were in response to poor export sales and increasing political pressure to reduce military spending.
While one of the more modern combat aircraft in the world, development of the Rafale was delayed by technical problems and shortages of money. Entering development just as the Cold War ended meant that there was little enthusiasm for spending billions on an aircraft that would face no real opposition. But, facing the need to eventually replace all their aging Mirage fighters, development did get restarted, creating an aircraft superior to the American F-15s and F-16s, very similar to the F-18F but inferior to the F-22 and F-35. The first prototype of Rafale was shown in 1986, and the aircraft should have entered service in the late 1990s. But there were delays, until the aircraft entered service in 2000.
The Eurofighter, and several other very competitive aircraft, have made export sales scarce. The 28 ton Rafale sells for about $130 million each and, so far, despite their impressive pedigree and features list, there have been no export orders. The Rafale is armed with a 30mm autocannon, 125 rounds of ammo, and can carry 9.5 tons of bombs and missiles (or drop tanks of fuel).
Currently Rafale is operating over Mali. The hundreds of combat sorties flown over Libya two years ago have made it easier to generate interest in export sales. This was not the first combat for Rafale. Five years ago six were sent to Afghanistan, rigged to deliver smart bombs. This went off well but did not get nearly as much publicity as the Libya and Mali operations.