The United Arab Emirates and France are discussing a proposed joint effort to develop a more capable, new-generation Dassault Rafale strike fighter, sources in the Arabian Gulf and Europe said.
“The conversation has moved forward from buying the Rafale to how to co-develop the next-generation Rafale,” a defense source in the Arabian Gulf said. The prospective new model would meet UAE requirements and “take the plane to the next level,” the source said.
A co-development with a foreign customer and partner would be a big boost for the twin-engine fighter jet, which is seen in France as a jewel of aeronautical excellence and the crown of the country’s arms-export efforts. Dassault Aviation has entered the Rafale in bidding for contracts in Brazil and India, and has offered it to Kuwait and Libya.
The UAE negotiations center on the systems and engine the upgraded aircraft would carry, the Gulf source said.
The main upgrades are said to be an active electronically scanned array radar, frontal sector optronics and an electronic warfare suite, systems supplied by Thales, and a 9-ton-thrust M88 engine, up-rated from the 7.5-ton engine that powers the French Air Force and Navy Rafales.
Last June, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said the United Arab Emirates was in discussions to buy the Rafale, which Dassault bills as an omnirole fighter. The jets would replace the Mirage 2000-9s bought from France in 1998.
Some 50 French executives were in Abu Dhabi in the week of April 12 as part of the talks, an executive at a rival fighter maker said.
“I can confirm the first,” said a French executive close to the discussions. “We are working flat out on negotiating the contract and ancillary contracts.”
The executive confirmed that the negotiations go beyond just a purchase, and are aimed at agreeing on co-development of an advanced version of the Rafale.
“There are, effectively, discussions between the two governments on how to finance the additional functionality,” the executive said.
The co-development work is expected to take years, he said, adding that whether the work will make the new variant a “next-generation” Rafale is a question of semantics.
The executive said industry is working on the technical definition of the aircraft, while the financial aspects are being negotiated at the government level.
A June date for concluding a deal “is possible, not guaranteed,” he said.
A second French defense executive said of the negotiations, “All the lights are green.”
A Dassault spokesman would not confirm that a joint development effort might be part of the UAE-French discussion about the possible purchase of Rafales.
“Talks are continuing,” he said.
Fighter Swap?
One European executive with knowledge of the deal said Paris has agreed to buy back the Mirage 2000-9s and put them into service with the French Air Force, then put its Mirage 2000-5s on the secondhand market and retire the Mirage 2000N nuclear strike version.
Asked about the buyback of Mirage 2000-9s, the Gulf source said, “It is all linked.”
Such a deal would be expensive, said Etienne de Durand, director of security studies at the Institut Fran├žais de Relations Internationales, a Paris think tank.
De Durand said Rafale export sales help fund the development of new capabilities, maintain design skills and keep French industry at the cutting edge of world fighter technology. That is why France is ready to agree to extensive technology transfer to sell the Rafale to Brazil, and why “smart arrangements” are being offered to the United Arab Emirates, he said.
But de Durand said that it often takes years to see whether the arrangements really do make sense. Maintenance of technological capabilities needs to be balanced against funding the operational needs of the armed forces, notably among middle-rank powers such as Britain and France, he said.
If the deal brings Mirage 2000-9s into the French Air Force, it could reduce the money available for buying and upgrading the Rafale, de Durand said.
Privately, French Air Force officials worry about taking in the 2000-9, which will mean operating and supporting a mixed fleet when the Rafale was intended to replace seven different types of aircraft in the Air Force and Navy.
Engine Upgrade
Snecma, which declined to comment on the talks, announced several months ago that it was considering developing a more powerful variant of its M88 engine for UAE Rafales.
In a press pack distributed at the Singapore Air Show in February, the French aircraft engine and equipment maker said, “For the UAE Air Force & Air Defense, which require more power for enhanced combat agility and improved performance in very hot weather, Snecma is considering the development of a more powerful variant of the M88 jet engine.
“Snecma has already demonstrated the feasibility of the 9-ton version of the M88, allowing for the design-related risks to be under control.”
Snecma would adapt the M88, not design a new engine, the company said.
Ordering Advanced Arms
The United Arab Emirates is known for funding state-of-the-art fighter development. In a forerunner to the potential Rafale deal, the Emirates funded the development of the Block 60 variant of the U.S.-designed F-16, adding an active electronically scanned array radar, new engine, electronic warfare and infrared gear, better cockpit avionics and conformal fuel tanks.
The Gulf state also has a history of working with France to develop advanced military equipment.
The Damocles laser targeting pod was co-developed for the UAE Air Force’s Mirage 2000-9 under the name Shehab. The French arms procurement office bought nine Damocles pods in 2008 for its Mirage 2000D and Rafale F3 aircraft.
If the Emirates does buy the Rafale, no immediate orders are expected for missile maker MBDA, as the Gulf nation has a stock of Mica air-to-air missiles and Black Shaheen cruise missiles for its Mirage 2000-9 fleet, which would be compatible with the Rafale.
The Dassault static display at the Paris Air Show last year included a Rafale with three mock-up cruise missiles, demonstrating its long-range strike capabilities.
Later market prospects for MBDA would come with the AASM guided propelled bomb and the Meteor beyond-visual-range missile. The long-range weapon is due to enter service with the French Air Force around the middle of the decade.
The United Arab Emirates has ordered three Airbus A330 multirole tanker and transport aircraft, and is potentially interested in buying more. The Abu Dhabi government bought France’s Leclerc tank in the early 1990s, becoming the only export customer.
France last year opened a naval base in Abu Dhabi as part of a shift of its military strength to the Gulf and away from Africa. The Gulf region is seen as strategically important because of the transit of petroleum tanker ships through its waters, the perceived threat from Iran and the sovereign wealth funds that are based in the Gulf states.