After nearly two decades of failure, in the last year, France has finally found European customers for their latest jet fighter; Rafale. The latest customer is Croatia, which will buy a dozen used, but updated to the recent Rafale F3-R standard, fighters for a hundred million dollars each. Deliveries will begin in 2014.
In late 2020 Greece agreed to buy 18 Rafale fighters for $3 billion. Deliveries will begin in mid-2021 and be completed by 2023. The purchase price for both Croatia and Greece included training, tech support, spare parts and long-term logistical support. France will also buy back 18 of Greece’s French-built Mirages. Greece obtained the Mirages in the late 1980s even as it was expanding its growing fleet of F-16s. Currently 80 percent of Greek fighters are American, most of them F-16s.
Greece was persuaded to buy the Rafale because it wanted to replace its 42 Mirage 2000 jets with an affordable and similar modern jet. Buying French had a lot of political and air force support, but only if France could offer economic incentives. France did and Greece bought the Rafale. To keep the cost of all this down, twelve of the Rafales will be used aircraft currently serving in the French air force. The other six will come off the production line. Currently only 230 Rafales have been built or are on order. Rafale thus remains an expensive aircraft to build because there are no economies of scale for fighters that are not built by the thousands. To keep Rafale cost competitive for export customers the manufacturer has to be creative and the French taxpayers have to contribute as well.
Since the 1970s, there have been only three jet fighter manufacturers in Western Europe. One was a multi-national consortium that delivered Tornado (990 built) in 1979 and Typhoon (571 built so far) in 2003. The others were France and Sweden, which has built 271 of its Gripen fighters since 1996. After World War II European nations, except for Britain, Sweden and France, found it cheaper and more convenient to buy American jets. The remaining European manufacturers found themselves less and less competitive compared to several American firms supplying the U.S. military, which was the largest user of high-tech warplanes. By the 1970s only Sweden, because it was neutral, and France, which was fond of being independent, paid the cost of developing and manufacturing their own fighters. Sweden and France put a lot of effort into obtaining export sales from non-European countries and were successful enough to keep both in business. But it was always a struggle to keep French and Swedish fighters up-to-date and competitive in terms of capabilities.
For example. in early 2017 France decided that they had obtained sufficient export orders from India, Qatar and Egypt to justify the cost of another major upgrade of electronics and weapons systems in their new Rafale jet fighters. This latest upgrade is called F4. The first Rafales were F1s and equipped only for air combat. It was not until F2 appeared in 2005 that Rafale could handle smart bombs and ground attack in general. The F3 standard followed in 2008 and added more weapons capabilities, including nuclear bombs. F4 adds more communications capabilities, especially with foreign aircraft and those equipped to exchange digital data quickly and automatically. There will be many changes to the electronic systems in general that will make it easier to develop and install future upgrades. F4 is not expected to enter service until 2025 and it will take longer because F4 involves improving engine performance as well as extensive electronics modifications.
Although it entered service in 2001, Rafale didn’t get any combat experience until 2007 when six were sent to Afghanistan. Three French Air Force Rafale F2s operated from Tajikistan. From there, the Rafales could fly down to Afghanistan and make themselves useful. Three navy Rafale F2s arrived on the carrier Charles de Gaulle, which was operating off the Pakistani coast. These F2s were the first Rafales with the hardware and software required for precision bombing (laser or GPS guided smart bombs). In 2011 Rafale carried out combat missions over Libya followed by service over Mali in 2012. Since 2014 Rafale has been active in Syria and Iraq. Rafale has performed well during all of these combat operations.
The export sales were difficult to obtain initially, the first two orders (both for 24 aircraft) came in 2015 with the third (for 36) in late 2016 when India finally signed a contract for 36 Rafale fighter jets with an option to buy 18 more in three years.
At the time of the first export sale France was the only user with 180 Rafales ordered and about 130 delivered. As of early 2017 180 had been delivered and 45 more are on order because France could now afford to build 225 for itself.
The Rafale design is a further evolution of the Mirage 2000, from the same manufacturer, and has the Delta Wing configuration common with the Mirage designs but with canards, a small forewing positioned ahead of the main wing, added. Rafale has a maximum speed of 2,450 kilometers an hour and a range of over 3,700 kilometers. It is equipped with a 30mm cannon and can carry nearly ten tons of weapons. It is now a battle tested aircraft and none have been lost in combat but four were destroyed in accidents. There is a naval version of Rafale that has operated off French and American carriers.
By 2017, after 20 years of trying, the Rafale went from an export zero to export hero in 45 days. France has had nothing but hard times trying to find export customers and had to cut the production rate to 11 aircraft a year, but now they will have to do the opposite. There is also a growing interest in French made fighters and among potential buyers in the Middle East and Asia. A few years later that led to European buyers as well. Persistence pays off eventually.