There is no doubt about it, the French-built Rafale fighter is on a roll. Egypt suddenly sealed a deal for 24 of the multirole fighters in February, India finally consummated a reduced initial order of 36 jets, and now Qatar will purchase 24. After 20 years, the Rafale has gone from an export zero to export hero in a blistering 45 days.
Each country that has bought the Rafale has done so for different reasons. India is looking to bridge the gap that will be left by retiring old MiG-21s and MiG-27s, and to offset delays in the country’s indigenous Tejas light fighter program.
India’s original Multi-Role Combat Aircraft initiative included 126 aircraft and massive industry offsets and technological exchanges. After years of negotiating, this buy has been scaled back to 36 initial aircraft, all of which will be built in France. India’s Rafale order could rapidly grow once the jets are operational and India is happy with the product.
The path to get a Rafale deal with India has been an arduous one. It took years to get a firm order for the Rafale in place, even though India already operates close to 60 Dassault Mirage 2000Hs as one of their key multirole fighter platforms. The Mirage 2000 is a direct predecessor to the Rafale and all of India’s Mirages are being upgraded to the Mirage 2000-5mk2 standard, which will allow them to better integrate with their new Rafale stablemates.
Egypt, which is now under quasi-military rule, bought its Rafales in what could be seen as response to the US holding back, at least temporarily, deliveries of late block F-16s as punishment for the’s military overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood led democratically elected government. The divergence from purchasing US hardware is a clear sign of frosty relations with the US, even though Egyptian-US military to military ties have been incredibly strong over the last few decades.
Egypt also has an existing fleet of 18 Mirage 2000EM/BMs, and many older Mirage Vs. The Mirage 2000 fleet may be augmented in the near future by around three dozen Mirage 2000-9s, which would be sold directly to Egypt from the UAE. These aircraft are some of the most advanced Mirages 2000s in the world and could easily be upgraded to integrate directly with the 24 Rafales now on order.
The move to the Rafale as Egypt’s most advanced fighter unseats the F-16, a jet that the country has had a long-running love affair with, being the fourth largest operator of the type in the world.
The Qatari order is especially interesting as the country has always maintained a fairly meager fighter inventory compared to neighboring emirates. Currently, Qatar only has about a dozen Mirage 2000-5s on hand. Before that, the Mirage F1 was the mainstay of their small fighter force. Although a fighter purchase was looming, the order of 24 jets will triple their fighter force, and when factoring in support, training and weaponry, it will bring $7B to French coffers.
One common denominator among all of the Rafale’s export customers is that they are are all prior Dassault customers, and all have fielded the predecessor to the Rafale in particular, the Mirage 2000, in various configurations. Regardless of this fact, the Rafale, which has performed brilliantly in operations over Libya, Mali and Iraq, has gone from export loser to export success in a tiny fraction of the program’s timeline, which has spanned close to 30 years. Further add-on orders and orders from other countries are almost certain to follow with such a powerful and sudden sales momentum.
Not only do all of these orders equate to tens of billions of dollars in income for France’s weapons and aerospace industry, but it also means that the Rafale line, which has been significantly slowed to its minimum pace of about 11 jets a year due to reduced French purchases, which is still above french demand, will be stabilized and even expanded.
After almost twenty years of trying, the Rafale is finally an exported fighter, to three air arms no less, two of which are some of the largest in the world. The sale to Qatar could also open the door to fulfilling Kuwait and Bahrain’s fighter needs, both of which are quietly in the market for new hardware. Kuwait is aiming to replace its dated F/A-18 Hornets and Bahrain looks toward replacing its aging F-5s and augmenting its F-16 force. Malaysia, which has a growing and highly diverse air arm, is also looking for new fighters, with Dassault’s Rafale a clear option among many others.
Not only is the Rafale now a battle proven aircraft, but France is also one of the most ‘creative’ sources for 4.5+ generation fighters when it comes to aggressive finance offers, with very attractive loan terms given to Egypt to close its fighter deal. For countries with advanced aerospace industries, large industrial offsets can also be offered to sweeten a fighter tender. This financial aggressiveness may even trump capability needs for many air forces that cannot procure new fighters in meaningful numbers with cash.
All of the Eurocanard family of fighters (Rafale, Eurofighter, Gripen) have spread to someplace throughout the globe other than Europe, and it will be interesting to see which production lines stay alive and which ones wither toward the end of the decade. Amazingly, what two months ago was a bleak outlook for France’s only fighter export has now become one of the shining stars on the international combat aircraft arms market.
Images via Dassault
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com