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Emirates put French in spin over jet deal

  |   Nov. 21, 2011 at 2:51 PM
ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates, Nov. 21 (UPI) -- The French reportedly thought they had a $10 billion deal with the United Arab Emirates for 60 Dassault Rafale jets pretty much sewn up but the Persian Gulf state has called for a Eurofighter bid and may be looking at Boeing fighters again.

This could all be a ploy to nudge the French into meeting the emirates' demands, knowing that Dassault is desperate to find its first foreign buyer for the jet.

The emirates particularly wanted a more powerful M88 engine from Snecma of France's Safran Group, which is considered better suited to desert conditions. It provides 9 tons of thrust, 1.5 tons more than the engine in the French air force's Rafales.

The emirates also wanted higher-performing, longer-range radar from Thales and improved electronic warfare suites for the multi-role jet.

But Maj. Gen. Khaled al-Buainnain, the former commander of the emirates' air force and the architect of its development as a frontline power in the gulf, says the sticking point is the cost of the Rafale rather than its technology.

"The United Arab Emirates always has special requirements," he said last week during the Dubai Air Show.

"I think the enhancement issue is over and that the issue now is financial and contractual. This is a massive project that needs deliberate study."

On Nov. 16, after three years of negotiations, the emirates' Crown Prince Sheik Mohammed bin Zayed, who is also deputy commander of the federation's armed forces, dropped a bombshell.

"Regrettably, Dassault seem unaware that all the diplomatic and political will in the world cannot overcome uncompetitive and unworkable commercial terms."

A senior government source familiar with the negotiations blamed the deadlock on the "arrogance" of the French plane-maker.

"Rather than using the strength of the bilateral relationship to close the deal out they are attempting to use it to hold out on pricing and a deal structure that hasn't changed in more than a year and that's been significantly battered by all competitors," he explained.

France has long been a key arms supplier to the gulf state, a confederation of seven emirates dominated by oil-rich Abu Dhabi which controls the military and its procurement policy.

The Rafale was intended to replace the emirates' fleet of Dassault Mirage 2000-9 aircraft bought from France two decades ago.

France opened an all-arms military base in the emirates in 2010, a move aimed at raising France's regional profile alongside the Americans and British. The Al Dhafra Air Base is the only French facility in the region and President Nicolas Sarkozy has personally lobbied for the Rafale with the emirates' leadership.

Dassault Aviation has used the Rafale's participation in the NATO air campaign against the late Moammar Gadhafi of Libya to promote the jet in the emirates, which also deployed an air component with NATO.

But that doesn't seem to have made much difference, if Sheik Mohammed's comments are to be taken at face value.

In other bumps in the protracted negotiations, Abu Dhabi demanded in February 2010 the Rafale had to be armed with Boeing's SLAM ER/2 missiles rather than the European-made MBDA AM-39 they're fitted to carry.

The SLAM -- stand-off land-attack missile -- is a spinoff of the radar-guided air-launched Harpoon anti-ship missiles. It's a high-precision guided munition for strikes against fixed land target and ships in port or at sea.

The AM-39 is a version of France's Exocet anti-ship missile used with powerful effect by Argentina's air force against Britain's navy in the 1982 Falklands War.

The emirates says it wants missiles capable of reaching deep inside Iran, which the Arab states in the gulf view as a dangerous threat.

The emirates has also demanded that France find buyers for its 63 Mirage 2000-9DADa and RADs. It's not known whether Paris has done so.

Meantime, the emirates has asked the four-nation Eurofighter consortium for technical details on its Typhoon strike jet as a possible alternative to the Rafale. A Eurofighter delegation briefed emirates officials Oct. 17 and they requested a proposal on the aircraft.

The emirates has also showed renewed interest in Boeing's F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, which is considered to be at the technological level sought by Abu Dhabi.

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