France pitching Brazil to save Rafale jet

Dec. 14, 2011 at 4:05 PM
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BRASILIA, Brazil, Dec. 14 (UPI) -- France is making a high-level pitch in Brazil to secure a sale for its Rafale jet fighter before the project gets axed amid French cutbacks and continued absence of customers for the aircraft.

The Dassault Aviation project has bothered Paris and prompted a succession of senior officials, including President Nicolas Sarkozy, to intervene and try to find customers for Rafale, which is in competition with Boeing's F/A-18 Super Hornet and Swedish Saab's Gripen fighter in Brazil's defense aviation market.

Some two years ago Brazil set off a major international scramble for a multibillion-dollar deal to refurbish the Brazilian air force inventory with ultra-sophisticated multi-role jet fighters. After the initial flurry and following government change in Brasilia, the deal remains as distant as ever.

Early spring 2012 is the latest date for a possible Brazilian decision on buying multiples of a jet fighter from the shortlist. France is reported anxious to get a positive decision on the deal not only to secure the cash but also to save Rafale from oblivion.

Brazil has indicated it wants to buy up to 36 jets but the so-called FX-II contest in the meantime has gone through so many revisions, marked by conflicting pronouncements, that nothing seems as certain as it did when Sarkozy dashed to Brazil in September 2009 in pursuit of the deal. At the time, the potential purchase was valued at about $8 billion.

U.S. President Barack Obama also canvassed for support to the Boeing bid and Sweden at one point considered sending King Carl XVI Gustaf into the fray to secure the deal for Gripen.

Of the three contenders Dassault's Rafale is the only jet that hasn't sold outside France.

French Prime Minister Francois Fillon, due in Brazil Thursday, said he was confident of selling Rafale fighter jets to Brazil and could beat off rival bids because the aircraft's technology could not be matched.

"We are confident because we believe that the French offer has the best possible transfer of technology, without equivalent," Fillon said in an interview published in Brazilian media.

French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet, quoted in Parisian newspaper Le Monde, earlier warned Sarkozy's government would have to stop funding Rafale's production unless it finds a foreign buyer.

The Rafale was used in the NATO campaign over Libya that helped topple Moammar Gadhafi but it has repeatedly lost out in tenders outside France, including Morocco, Singapore, South Korea and most recently Switzerland.

A long negotiated deal with the United Arab Emirates also hit snags. France hoped to sell the Persian Gulf state up to 60 Rafale fighters but a senior official in the country termed the proposed deal "uncompetitive and unworkable."

Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheik Mohamed bin Zayed, deputy of the country's armed forces, said Sarkozy's intervention in the talks had "sustained Dassault at the forefront of our considerations."

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

Analysts said an added complication was the emergence on the horizon of Lockheed Martin's F-35 Lightning II and the Eurofighter consortium's Typhoon, built jointly by BAE Systems, Finmeccanica of Italy and European aerospace group EADS on behalf of Germany and Spain.

It isn't clear if Brazil, too, has reset its sights and started looking at the Typhoon and Lightning II as the fourth and fifth contenders in the race.

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