September 27, 2009:
On September 24th, two French Rafale fighters collided and crashed in the Mediterranean, about 30 kilometers off the French coast. At least the French Navy believes it was a collision. The two aircraft were operating from the French carrier de Gaulle. There are only 17 navalized Rafales operating with the French navy. Now there are fifteen. One of the pilots was apparently lost (the search continues), and the one who survived was not sure if there was a collision. But that's usually the reason for two high performance aircraft going down at the same time, in the same place. It's highly unlikely for two modern jets to have equipment failures, and crash, at the same time. These collisions are not uncommon during training exercises. In this case, the two aircraft apparently just drifted too close to each other. The Rafale has been in service since 1998 and has a good safety record. The pilots involved were very experienced. However, last year, a French Air Force Rafale crashed when the pilot became disoriented.
The most recent crash comes at a bad time, for Brazil recently said it was interested in buying 36 Rafales. This is an aircraft that is more (in terms of performance and cost) than Brazil needs, but France prepared the way with a multi-billion dollar submarine and technology transfer deal. This included assistance in designing and building nuclear, and non-nuclear submarines. But after the potential sale was announced, the president of Brazil chimed in to remind everyone that he had the final say. So the French are nervous about this sales, and seeing to Rafales crash on the same day is not seen as a good omen.
France has had nothing but hard times trying to find export customers for its Rafale. Earlier this 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. That will probably change, eventually. Brazil and Dassault (Rafale's manufacturer) do not expect to nail down the final contract until next year. So, technically, France has not made its first Rafale export sale yet. But they have never been this close. For French defense officials, that's close enough to party a little.
Late last year, France ordered another 60 Rafale jet fighters, and these will be delivered over the next six years. Officially, France plans to buy 294, and 60 have been delivered so far. Three years ago, the French Air Force activated its first squadron of Rafale fighters. The navy had received ten navalized Rafales three years before that, for service on the nuclear aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle. The first prototype of Rafale was shown in 1986, and the aircraft should have entered service in the late 1990s.
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.