Air Weapons: The Customer Is Always Right


February 19, 2010: After a decade of effort, France finally has an export customer for its Rafale jet fighter. Again. Last year, it was believed that Brazil would buy 36 of them, for over $4 billion. The Rafale was more (in terms of performance and cost) than Brazil needed, but France prepared the way with a multi-billion dollar submarine and technology transfer deal. This included assistance in designing and building nuclear submarines. That also includes four non-nuclear, 1,400 ton Scorpene subs, three of them built in Brazil, with French technical assistance. This would be part of the process by which Brazil would also build its first nuclear sub, based on the 4,700 ton French Barracuda. Then Brazil backed off, as several key military and political officials took seriously the fact that competing aircraft, especially the Swedish Gripen, were more suitable to Brazilian needs. But now France believes it has a solid opportunity with the UAE (United Arab Emirates), which wants to buy 60 Rafales. There's just one catch. The UAE wants the Rafales wired to use the American SLAM-ER air-to-ground missile, not the similar AM-39 (Exocet) that Rafale normally uses.

The AGM-84 SLAM ER is a 1,400 pound (636 kilogram) missile with a 280 kilometer range, a 500-pound warhead, and costing half a million dollars each. The AM-39 is similar in size, but has a shorter range. The UAE prefers the SLAM-ER, and it's believed that the French will adapt the Rafale for the American missile, rather than risk losing the sale.

These original SLAM missile was first used during the 1991 Gulf War, and was very similar to the Harpoon (which it shared many components and design features with). SLAM was originally designed for destroying ships. But because of its accuracy, it was found capable of taking out land targets as well. This is what the UAE wants for use against inland Iranian targets. Guidance is similar to JDAM (GPS and inertial guidance system), but with a heat seeker and final adjustments via a data link by the pilot any aircraft equipped with SLAM control equipment. In the past, the SLAM had to be programmed to fly a specific course before takeoff. Being able to reprogram the missile in flight is another capability required for weapons used via the battlefield Internet. This allows a satellite, aircraft or UAV to pick up a target (like an enemy ship hidden in a cove), and pass that data to an aircraft carrying a SLAM-ER.

France has had nothing but hard times trying to find export customers for its Rafale. Last  year, the production rate the Rafale was reduced from 14 a year to 11 a year. This was to slow down the delivery of Rafales, mainly because the Defense Ministry has decided that other things were more important. The new emphasis (and spending) is on peacekeeping and anti-missile defenses. Another reason for slowing down Rafale production was the lack of export orders.

While one of the more modern combat aircraft in the world, development of the Rafale was delayed by technical problems, and shortages of money. Entering development just as the Cold War ended meant that there was little enthusiasm to spend billions on an aircraft that would face no real opposition. But, facing the need to eventually replace all those Mirage fighters, development did get restarted, creating an aircraft superior to the American F-15s and F-16s, very similar to the F-18F, but inferior to the F-22 and F-35.

The Eurofighter, and several other very competitive aircraft have made export sales scarce. By 2006, the French armed forces had only ordered 120 Rafales (82 for the air force, 38 for the navy). The 28 ton aircraft sell for about $100 million each, and it is hoped the Brazil sale will spur other nations to take a chance on France.





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