France uses Mali war to boost Rafale jet

Jan. 18, 2013 at 3:06 PM
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ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates, Jan. 18 (UPI) -- France is exploiting the deployment of Dassault Rafale combat jets against Islamic militants in Mali to boost efforts to clinch a $10 billion deal for 60 of the multirole aircraft with the United Arab Emirates.

The French are clearly hoping that lightning will strike twice.

Dassault won a hotly contested fighter competition in January 2012 when India awarded the French aviation giant an $11 billion contract for 126 Rafales in the wake of the jet's combat debut in the NATO offensive against Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011.

The Indian deal, one of the biggest military aviation deals ever, was a lifesaver for the Rafale.

Dassault, heavily backed by the French government, had been battling for years to land its land its first foreign customer for the delta-wing aircraft developed in the 1980s.

Its only buyers were the French air force and navy, despite an aggressive sales campaign personally endorsed and driven by President Nicolas Sarkozy when he was in office.

In the Indian deal, the Rafael beat out Eurofighter's Typhoon in the final round. Lockheed Martin's F-16 and Boeing's F/A-18 had been eliminated earlier.

The Indian deal revitalized Dassault and the Elysee Palace. Now Sarkozy's successor, Francois Hollande, is leading the charge.

Hollande last week ordered the French air force to launch strikes against jihadist fighters in Mali, a former French colony in northwest Africa, and Rafales led the assault, taking off from an airbase in southern France and landing in Chad, another former French territory.

As fate would have it, Hollande announced the military intervention during a visit to Abu Dhabi, the oil-rich economic powerhouse of the United Arab Emirates, giving a hefty diplomatic boost to the French effort to win the $10 billion contract.

France established a multi-arm military base in Abu Dhabi in 2010, the only French base in the Persian Gulf, winning some brownie points in a region where the United States and Britain have long been the dominant arms suppliers.

The French drive to sell the Rafale, a highly agile twin-engined jet that has become the standard-bearer of the French aerospace industry, to the emirates has been under way since 2008 and the only rival left in the field is Boeing's F/A-18.

The six member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council -- the emirates, plus Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain -- are currently engaged in an arms buildup to counter Iran that by most estimates is heading for around $130 billion.

The French have been heavily outgunned by U.S. and British defense giants, so a big score in the emirates would be welcome in Paris.

In 1994, the emirates spent $2.4 billion on 390 Leclerc tanks and 46 armored recovery vehicles built by France's Giat Industries, now known as Nexter. That remains the Leclerc's only foreign sale.

Negotiations for the Rafale, to replace 68 Dassault's Mirage 2000-9 jets sold to the emirates in the late 1990s, have seesawed.

They hit a big obstacle in November 2010 when Abu Dhabi, which handles the emirates' military procurement, criticized Dassault Aviation over the price of the jet.

It seemed to be turning toward the Eurofighter, 72 of which Britain's BAE Systems sold to Saudi Arabia in a $7.2 billion deal finalized in September 2007.

Dassault was not able to meet Abi Dhabi's price requirements, or afford the systems upgrades it demanded, which carried $2.6 billion price tag.

That changed with the Rafale's success in India. Because of India's investment, Dassault is now better placed to meet the emirates' demands.

The French, who have in the past sold advanced naval frigates to Saudi Arabia, "are interested in expanding their security relations with the GCC states because they sees themselves as a regional player on a par with the United Kingdom and the United States," said Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Institute for Near East Gulf Military Analysis in Abu Dhabi.

"So you're seeing a big push from them."

If the deal goes through, and with the emirates flush from high oil prices it could, France's defense sector will get a big boost.

The jet incorporates Safran's engines and Thales' radar, avionics and electronic warfare suites, while missile-maker MBDA hopes a Rafale sale will mean export deals for its systems.

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