Procurement: Rafale Doesn't Travel Well

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February 12, 2008: France has failed to win a single export order for its new Rafale jet fighter. The twin engine Rafale has a reduced radar signature (but not truly stealthy), a top speed of 2,130 kilometers per hour, and the ability to carry eight tons of bombs, missiles, and other weapons. It has excellent electronics.

The French military has only been able to buy 120 (82 for the air force, 38 for the navy) Rafales so far, but would like to eventually purchase as many as 292. With a total project cost of $40 billion, that would mean each aircraft would cost nearly $200 million. Export sales are meant to lower that, as each exported aircraft absorbs some of the development cost. But the Rafale has had to compete with cheaper U.S. aircraft, like the F-16, which is still in production. In addition, used F-16s are available at bargain prices (under $30 million each), while the latest models go for over $50 million each. The U.S. also offers the F-15E, a very capable fighter-bomber. Russia also offers inexpensive, and quite modern, Mig-29s and Su-27/30 fighters. A European consortium (not including France) has successfully exported its new Eurofighter, and Sweden has been able it sell some of its new Gripen (sort of "Rafale Lite"). France is the odd man out here.

The French Air Force activated its first squadron of Rafale fighters on June 29, 2006. The navy had received ten navalized Rafales two years earlier, for service on the nuclear aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle. The first prototype of Rafale was shown in 1986, and the aircraft should have entered service in the late 1990s. 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 to spend billions on an aircraft that would face no real opposition. But, facing the need to eventually replace all those older Mirage fighters, development did eventually get restarted, creating an aircraft superior to the American F-15s and F-16s, and very similar to the F-18F, but inferior to the F-22 and F-35.

France expected to pay for all this with export sales. That proved more difficult than expected. The 28 ton Rafale sells for up to $100 million each, and so far, export orders have been hard to come by. Noting that the considerable combat experience of the F-15E has made that older design a formidable contender in the export market, the French have gone to great expense to put some Rafales into harm's way. Last year, France sent six to Afghanistan, to get some combat experience. Dropping smart bombs on Taliban gunmen didn't do much for export sales.

The Rafale F2s (fighter-bomber) version typically use GBU-12 (the 611 pound Paveway II) and GBU-22 (the 720 pound Paveway III) laser-guided bombs, carrying three bombs under each wing, in addition to about four tons of additional fuel, in drop tanks. Rafale only recently fixed a problem (vibration) with its 30mm cannon, so that it could be usedfor strafing ground targets. The Rafale has not yet been fitted with a laser designator, so that function will have to be provided by Mirage 2000Ds, which are also operating in Afghanistan (actually neighboring Tajikistan.)

 


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