Murphy's Law: Yesterday's Technology Today


December 8, 2010:  France's Rafale fighter continues to have a hard time getting export sales. Recently revealed (via Wikileaks) American diplomatic messages spotlighted one reason why. In one of those messages, the king of Bahrain proclaimed the Rafale "yesterday's technology." This attitude was shared by many other Gulf State rulers, and their purchasing officials. This may have had something to do with the Rafale being dropped from a sales competition, by India, for being too expensive and failing to meet technical requirements. India is looking to spend $12 billion on 126 high performance jet fighters. Five other aircraft were competing (U.S. F-16 and F-18, European Eurofighter, Russian MiG-29 and Swedish Gripen). The F-16 and F-18 are considered frontrunners, partly because both aircraft have extensive combat records and a large number of satisfied foreign customers. Some Indian officials insist that Rafale is still in the competition, but the consensus seems to be that Rafale is out. Bad word-of-mouth appears to have something to do with it.

France has had nothing but problems trying to find export customers for its Rafale. As a result, last year, the production rate the Rafale was reduced from 14 a year to 11 a year. This slowed down the delivery of Rafales, mainly because the Defense Ministry has decided that other things are more important. The new emphasis (and spending) is on peacekeeping and anti-missile defenses.

Two years ago, France ordered another 60 Rafale jet fighters, and these will be delivered over the next five years. Officially, France plans to buy 294, but only 180 have actually been ordered and nearly a hundred delivered. Four have been lost due to accidents.

Four years ago, the French Air Force activated its first squadron of Rafale fighters. The navy had received ten navalized Rafales four 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 so far, despite their impressive pedigree and features list, there have been no export orders, although Brazil is considered close to buying. But close is not a sale.




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