French Defence Minister Gerard Longuet announced Dec. 7 that production of the Dassault Rafale combat aircraft will be stopped if the aircraft does not sell abroad. Answering a question during the "Questions Info" radio program, he said the decision would be made once the French armed forces had received the 180 Rafales they have on order.
The Minister of Defence has thus unsheathed the sword of Damocles, and is now holding it over the Rafale’s cockpit, said one observer as Longuet warned that “if Dassault does not sell any Rafales overseas, then the production line will be closed.”
The minister said any decision to stop production would not be taken until 2018 at the earliest, once the French armed forces have received all of their own aircraft, and this “leaves Dassault with a considerable margin” to win export orders.
And he immediately added that the existing Rafale fleet would continue to be maintained and supported during their entire operational life, or about forty years. This ensures that industry will be provided for, he added, as sustainment of a combat aircraft accounts for about two-thirds of its total life-cycle costs.
France’s 2008 Defence White Paper Defence 2008 calls for delivery of a total of 286 Rafale aircraft to the French air force and naval aviation, but only 180 have been ordered to date.
Longuet’s statement is seen in some quarters as a new threat to the Rafale program, and follows two weeks of bad news on the export front: Switzerland last week said it had selected the less capable, but cheaper, Saab Gripen as its next-generation fighter. The previous week, the United Arab Emirates criticized Dassault’s negotiating stance, and implied it would look elsewhere, while news from two other prospective markets, Brazil and India, is not very encouraging.
Gérard Longuet believes that pricing is the Achilles heel of the Rafale, whose capabilities are widely recognized. Dassault Aviation hoped that operations in Libya, by showcasing the aircraft’s outstanding performance and emphasizing its capabilities, would have encouraged customers to ignore its price, but these hopes have now been shown to be unfounded.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Obviously surprised by the widespread attention given to his remarks, Longuet later said he had been misunderstood. He told Agence France Presse that "production for the French military will not stop before 2030," and that "deliveries to the [French] military will continue substantially beyond 2020.”
He also implied that industry would win additional upgrade work by noting that, “in parallel, the aircraft will evolve between 2020 and 2030."
Nonetheless, Longuet’s comments will probably not help the Rafale’s export prospects. They also will not encourage a sceptical Dassault, which is already unwilling to invest more money to win export sales in the absence of effective government support, to step up its efforts.
More to follow on this subject.)