ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates, Feb. 16 (UPI) -- France's Dassault Aviation, desperate to find the first foreign customer for its multi-role Rafale fighter, is concentrating on a potential sale of 60 of the jets to the United Arab Emirates.
But Abu Dhabi has thrown a wrench in the works by demanding that the Rafales be armed with Boeing's SLAM ER/2 missile instead of the European-made MBDA AM-39 they are fitted to carry.
The SLAM -- stand-off land-attack missile -- is a spin-off from the radar-guided air-launched Harpoon anti-ship missile. It's a high-precision guided munition for surgical strike capability against fixed land targets and ships in port or at sea.
The AM-39 is a version of the French Exocet anti-ship missile used with considerable effect by the Argentine air force against Britain's navy in the 1982 Falklands War.
The emirates' military says it wants missiles capable of reaching targets deep inside Iran. While the AM-39 has a range of 65 miles, the SLAM ER/2 can travel up to 160 miles.
The United Arab Emirates has built up what is widely viewed as the most formidable air force in the Gulf. It has 184 combat aircraft, including 155 ground-attack fighters, mainly 55 F-16E Block 60 Desert Eagles, 25 F-16F Block 60 Eagles and 18 French Mirage 2000-9DADs and 44 Mirage 2000-9RADs.
Only two countries outside the United States have SLAM-ER/2s -- South Korea, with 47, and Turkey with 50.
Adapting the Rafale to carry SLAMs would present technical difficulties and would cut out MBDA, a British-German-French-Italian missile consortium, of any contract Dassault may negotiate.
But given the pressing need for the French government, as well as Dassault, to sign their first foreign customer for the aircraft they would likely go along with Abu Dhabi's wishes if that was what it took to get the emirates on board.
The French armed forces have signed up for 286 Rafales but Dassault urgently needs new customers to keep production lines going to provide aircraft for French forces.
The French spent a record $26.4 billion in 2009 on military procurement and that included 60 Rafales fitted with twin Snecma M88 augmented turbofan engines. Deliveries are to begin in 2015.
Dassault thought it had made its first big score with Brazil, with which it had been negotiating for the sale of 36 Rafales. In early February, Brazilian media reports said the deal was expected to go through after Dassault trimmed $2 billion off its asking price. That would have reduced the value of the contract to around $10.2 billion -- $6.2 billion for the aircraft and $4 billion for long-term servicing and training.
But Brazilian Defense Minister Nelson Jobim said Feb. 4: "The purchase has not been defined …. The report is unfounded."
As it was, Brazilian air force chiefs rated the Rafale lower than two competitors -- the Gripen NG from Sweden's Saab and Boeing's F/A-18. So Dassault is not likely to secure a deal in Brasilia.
In January, Dassault Chief Executive Officer Charles Edelstenne conceded that he'd given up hope of landing contracts for Rafale in Kuwait and Greece.
Libya, he said, was ready to place an order for 14 Rafales 15 months ago, but the final decision has been put on hold.
Morocco passed on the purchase of 12-18 Rafales, to be financed by Saudi Arabia, and signed an $842 million deal with Lockheed Martin for 24 F-16s in December.
Meantime, Dassault is waiting for the outcome of fighter competitions in India and Switzerland.
Edelstenne complained that Americans were doing all they could to sabotage Dassault's effort to sell the Rafale to Abu Dhabi and noted that the jet is 30 percent more expensive than its U.S. rivals because of the euro's strength against the dollar.
However, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has put his personal prestige on the line to sell the Rafale to the United Arab Emirates, which he visited last year to open a French military base in Abu Dhabi, France's first in the Gulf.
And Dassault has another ace up its sleeve. It's a partner in Baynuna Aviation Technology, an Abu Dhabi company founded in 2006 by Khaled al Bu-Ainain, commander of the emirates' air force in 1985-2005 and influential in Gulf defense circles.
If Dassault wins the Rafale contract, it will establish joint ventures with Baynuna for equipping and maintaining the aircraft.