Triumph! For Now. Rafale’s Struggles, Failures, Big Wins… and Future

By Matthew Beres, Forecast International.

In the blink of an eye, France has come out of nowhere and ripped the global fighter market from the hands of its industry competitors. It’s certainly no surprise that the Rafale is gaining sales momentum, as it’s always been operationally competitive, despite a protracted failure to solicit international buyers.

The first prototype Rafale flown in July 1986 was touted as the new age replacement for France’s senior combat aircraft. A world leader in agile fighter capabilities, it featured stealth, an advanced electronic surveillance and jamming system, and electronically scanned radar. Additionally, it was the first fighter to reach Mach 2 horizontally.

Despite the Rafale’s impressive credentials, a $340 million slash to the French defense budget in 1994 caused delayed replacement of French Air Force Mirage IIIs, F1s and Naval Super Etendards. It wasn’t until 2001 that the Navy’s 17 F-8E(FN) Crusaders were replaced. In December 2004, the Air Force received its first three Rafale Bs.

Des Hauts et Des Bas

As early as 2002, the Republic of Korea (South) chose the F-15K Slam Eagle over competitors, including Dassault. 2005 talks with the Canadian Defence Department stalled because of potential Rafale interoperability issues with U.S. aircraft. In the same year, Singapore chose the F-15SG Strike Eagle in a close competition. The year 2007 saw a sale to Morocco fall through in favor of the F-16C/D, followed by 2009 talks with the UAE that hit a wall when upgrade demands pushed the total price up to $2.6 billion. In 2011, Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Union Defense Force called negotiations “uncompetitive and unworkable.” The same year, Switzerland chose the Gripen, followed in 2012 by an order for 12 Typhoons by Oman. In 2013, after a five-year selection process, Brazil selected the Gripen.

Countries had bought the F-15K Slam Eagle, F-15SG Strike Eagle, F-16C/D, Gripen, and Typhoon all over the Rafale. Many of these were very close calls, however, with the Rafale getting selected in the final rounds of competition, and gaining momentum. Then all the hard work paid off with the huge prospect of the sale of 126 Rafales to India.


India’s original program to purchase 126 aircraft fell apart following disagreements regarding the possible in-state manufacture of 108 Rafales by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), price escalation due to upgrade demands, and finally Indian defense budget cuts. It was like watching Rocky Balboa vs Ivan Drago. In every round, Rafale took a beating, and after this last major blow, questions abounded whether Dassault could even stand on its own two feet.

It wasn’t until President Francois Hollande personally started soliciting foreign nations that sales started booming. Francois Hollande may have lost favor with the French people, but he’s put in major legwork to push for Rafale sales.

Beaten and battered against the ropes, Dassault pushed off, threw a right hook, and India asked for rapid delivery of 36 Rafales to fill a much needed gap in its aircraft strength. Then Dassault threw another right – Egypt ordered 24 Rafales – and another right – Qatar ordered 24.

Sales reflected the general upward trend of the French economy as a whole in the first quarter of 2015. French GDP grew by 0.6 percent in the first quarter, outpacing both the U.K. and U.S., boosted by a rebound in net exports of 1.3 percent in Q1 and 1.7 percent in Q2.

Proven Medicine

Francois Hollande, of course, wasn’t pushing snake oil – a majority of the sales success can be attributed to confidence in Dassault products. Between the various Mirage fighters (2000, 5, 50, F1, III, and IV), there have been 26 national operators, with a current world inventory of 845 aircraft. It’s no coincidence that India, Qatar, and Egypt are return customers to the Dassault fighter brand. France’s reliable procurement of needed repair parts, maintenance and upgrades has cemented a loyal customer base among those 26 national operators.

Perhaps the greatest sales point for Dassault was the Mirage III’s show in the Six-Day War. Even though it lacked maneuverability vs the MiG’s superior thrust-to-weight ratio, the Mirage gained superiority with 30mm cannons equipped with impact-detonated rounds, taking advantage of the proximity of the MiG’s fuel tank to an oxygen bottle in the fuselage. During the war, the Mirage III had 156 total kills, amounting to a 16:1 kill ratio. Some 111 MiG-21s were destroyed on the ground and 45 were shot down, amounting to an air-to-air ratio of 6:1.

Beyond Six Days

Even with limited strike sorties, the Pakistani Mirage’s ability to outpace Indian interceptors was impressive during the Indo-Pakistan War. With a total of 395 sorties, three IAF aircraft were shot down.

Eight Mirage F1s and 18 Mirage 2000s took part in Operation Deliberate Force during the Bosnia/Kosovo War. Nine M2000Cs flew 60 Combat Air Patrol sorties, or 20 percent of Deliberate Force CAP sorties. The M2000Ds flew 10 offensive air strike missions and 12 tactical reconnaissance sorties during the operation.

During the Gulf War, U.S., French, Kuwaiti, Qatari, and UAE Mirages dominated the skies with more than 785 sorties to provide defense, counter-air, ground attack, reconnaissance, and fighter air cover.

Here are some of the other major operations covered by the Mirage:

Operation Enduring FreedomAfghanistan

12 French Mirage 2000s, F1s, and IVs flew in air-to-ground and close air support missions.

Operation HarmattanLibya

Enforcement of Libyan No-Fly Zone – French Mirage 2000s, 4 Qatari Mirage 2000s, and 6 UAE Mirages.

Operation ServalMali

Support of Mali government – 6 Mirage 2000s, 2 Mirage F1s.

Operations Manta and Epervier Chad

4 F1C-200s provided air cover for Jaguars, and 6 F1s provided fighter cover for 8 Jaguars.

Cenepa WarEcuador/Peru

Ecuadorian F1s shot down 2 Peruvian Sukhois.

Operation DaisySouth Africa

South African F1s shot down 3 Angolan MiG-21s.

Iran-Iraq WarIran/Iraq

A green and inexperienced Iraqi Air Force built confidence after F1s shot down 35 Iranian aircraft.

Operation Alysse (Southern Watch)Iraq

6 Mirage 2000s enforced a No-Fly Zone over Southern Iraq south of 32º N latitude.

Operation TurquoiseRwanda

8 Mirage fighters provided reconnaissance and ground attack.

Operation AlmandinCentral African Republic

F1s patrolled borders and supported Bangui ground forces.

Rafale Combat

Rafales have seen limited action despite their deployment during Mission Heracles in Afghanistan. In 2007, three Rafales deployed to Dushanbe, Tajikistan, with an additional three on board the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier. The year’s first mission was in support of Dutch troops in southern Afghanistan, a combat operation support role that continued through 2011.

Rafales equipped with the aircraft’s version of the AASM Air-to-Ground Modular Weapon HAMMER conducted a high-altitude bombing mission in Libya during 2011’s Operation Harmattan. During Operation Serval to support the Malian government, Rafales struck rebel training camps, and logistics and infrastructural facilities in Gao. Nine Rafales performed recon and attack missions over Iraq during Operation Chammal to battle Islamic State militants. Thus far, combat experience in no way proves the Rafale’s capabilities against proportional technology and training, but the same can be said of its competitors.

On the Horizon?

The UAE has been looking at up to 40 fighters, and it’s certainly an incentive to have interoperability with Qatar’s new Rafales. Of course, the same can be said for Saudi and the imminent Kuwaiti Typhoons. For five years, the United Arab Emirates has been looking at as many as 60 aircraft, but conversations have included additional requests for AGM-84H SLAM-ER missiles, and a costly M88 modification. The UAE recently backed out of Eurofighter negotiations, giving Dassault another chance at 40 fighters and upgrades to UAE’s fleet of Mirages.

Reduced oil prices have delayed the Royal Malaysian Air Force’s procurement of 16 Rafales to replace MiG-29Ns, which were supposed to be retired in 2015. Dassault offered Malaysia a French government- supported 10-year bank loan to bolster the $6 billion deal. Despite a lack of Malaysian funding, Dassault is planning to sweeten the support of a purchase through existing local manufacturing and service partners.

In 2012 Canada abandoned its planned F-35 purchase until 2018 and included Dassault in 2014 conversations. Dassault will face problems with an aircraft built to operate French weapons systems in a country with U.S.-built AMRAAMs, Sidewinders, Mavericks, and Harpoons. Much like experiences in India and the UAE, this may cause price escalation and stalled negotiations.

Finland has an aging fleet of 62 Hornets, set to retire by 2030. Its economy is doing horribly, but events in Georgia and Ukraine are scaring the Nordic nation. Rafale is in competition to replace the Finnish Hornets, but the rather expedited Finnish delivery expectations may strain Dassault’s production capabilities.

Supply and Demand

Near-term delivery of the fighters will certainly be a discerning factor, as regionally proportional air defense capabilities put pressure on national customers to replace their legacy fighters. Each Rafale takes approximately 24 months to produce, with an annual output of 11 aircraft. If Dassault continues to make sales, production rates will have to either increase or divert delivery from other contracts. Dassault claims capacity to double production, a possible parallel with offset agreements, especially in India and Malaysia.

Dassault does invariably face some major hurdles to increase sales of the Rafale, including a relatively high price tag, fluttering national economies, and a crowded red ocean. France and Dassault’s reputation for quality aircraft and service has already proven, through sales to Egypt and Qatar, that they can move past these hurdles to convince customers that the Rafale is a quality fighter worth the expense. With the established combat experience of the Mirage and Rafale, an imminent vacuum caused by obsolescent legacy fighters, and looming regional threats, Dassault may indeed embody the touted speed of its product as the Rafale thrusts further toward this red ocean’s horizon.


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