Libya boosts Euro fighter jets at Paris Air Show
LE BOURGET, France (AP) — In the war in Libya, the French Rafale fighter jet has nearly done it all: no-fly zone enforcement, air-to-ground strikes, reconnaissance, overflight missions.
One thing the plane has never done is sell overseas.
The Rafale and a European market rival, the Typhoon, have been among standout performers in the NATO air campaign against Moammar Gadhafi's forces — offering an unexpected shop window as nations including rising world powers Brazil and India consider multibillion-dollar fighter jet purchases.
Both warplanes were heavily promoted at this year's Paris Air Show with military delegations from the Middle East, Latin America and Southeast Asia touring their exhibition stands. They participated in daily aerobatic displays, roaring and maneuvering across the sky as thousands craned their necks to watch.
Aside from fighter planes, analysts say another big showcase has been guided munitions like the GBU-12 laser-guided bomb, the AASM air-to-ground weapon, and Scalp and Storm Shadow cruise missiles.
The Dassault-built Rafale, in service for the French Air Force since 2006, has been flying air support roles in Afghanistan since 2007, but in a far more limited role than in NATO's campaign in Libya, built solely on airpower.
"We really feel like we've turned a corner and we are at a level of extreme performance," Laurent Collet-Billon, head of French defense procurement agency DGA, told The Associated Press near a static display of a Rafale fighter at the air show in the northern suburb of Le Bourget.
Since the Libya campaign started in March, "a certain number" of potential Rafale buyers have approached the DGA to seek details, Collet-Billon said, adding abruptly: "I won't give the names." He cautioned that no big-ticket deal looms in the immediate future.
The French have for years been trying to get an export deal.
In 2007, the French bungled talks with Morocco, which instead opted to buy an F-16 from Lockheed Martin Corp. The same year, Gadhafi himself began exclusive talks with France to purchase 14 Rafales — the same type of jet now hitting his military assets with laser- and GPS-guided bombs.
That sale was still pending when the Arab spring swept through Libya, prompting Gadhafi's forces to crack down on democracy-minded protesters and leading to international sanctions against his regime and an U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing a no-fly zone and measures to protect Libyan civilians.
These days, India has shortlisted both the Rafale and the Eurofighter Typhoon for a planned $11 billion order for 126 jets for its air force. The French jet is also competing against Sweden's Gripen NG from Saab AB and U.S.-based Boeing Co.'s F-18 Super Hornet for a planned $5 billion purchase by Brazil — though that order is being delayed by budget cuts.
Eurofighter spokesman Marco Valerio Bonelli declined to discuss the Typhoon's export prospects as a result of the Libyan operation, but said the multirole combat jet had performed "flawlessly" in all missions there.
The Typhoon, deployed in combat for the first time in Libya, is being used by the British and Italian air forces for patrols and precision strikes against tanks, communications centers, ports and other installations.
The Typhoon entered service in 2003, and is currently used by four countries that are home to companies that built it — Britain, Germany, Italy and Spain — plus the Austrian and Saudi Arabian air forces.
India, the world's biggest arms importer, is a major lure for defense companies at the Paris show, and is being wooed by major arms makers as it replaces its obsolete Soviet-era weapons and aircraft.
The makers of both the Typhoon and Rafale have India in mind: the Eurofighter chalet at the show mentions in big letters that it's a finalist for the Indian Air Force.
George Lawrence, a defense analyst with IHS Jane's, said both the Typhoon and the Rafale have shown an array of capabilities in Libya, but that "the Rafale has demonstrated them in a more mature fashion."
The Typhoon often works best in tandem, some say.
"It has an air-to-ground capability, but it's not very mature at this stage, that's really the specialty of the Tornado," said Lawrence. Both the Typhoon and the Rafale "have performed well in this conflict (in Libya), so it probably won't help the Indians make their decision," he said.
Dassault Aviation spokesman Stephane Fort said Libya "is not a shop window" for the Rafale, "but it has been the opportunity to show what it was designed for" — a panoply of roles and actions all in the same sortie.
He said the United Arab Emirates has approached French officials about the possible purchase of 60 Rafales, and Switzerland is considering the purchase of 22 fighters — either Rafales or Saab's Gripen.
The Rafale has struggled to find an export market because of its high cost and complexity — a marked shift from France's last big-name fighter jet, the Mirage, whose Mirage 2000 model was a strong export item. Competitors from the United States and Russia — such as the General Dynamics F-16, McDonnell Douglas F-15 and the Sukhoi Su-27 — also have grabbed a large slice of the market.
"Historically, successful French export aircraft have been relatively simple, relatively cheap, whereas Rafale switches that around," Lawrence said.
Spokespeople for Eurofighter and Dassault said the Typhoons and Rafales each cost in a range of $50 billion to $70 billion depending on the exact configuration and capabilities.
The market for European-built fighters is going to get tighter, said Lawrence's IHS Jane's colleague Endre Lunde, because Lockheed Martin Corp.'s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is looming around the corner.
The U.S. Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps plan to buy nearly 2,500 F-35s over the next 40 years — ensuring there will be a major competitor for the Europeans on the horizon.
Stringent U.S. rules about export of defense technology, the desire for rising world powers to maintain military independence, and politics all factor into decisions about fighter-jet purchases these days.
If the Europeans are going to grab a niche, the time is now, analysts said.
"Dassault, the different Eurofighter manufacturers, and Saab are all coming toward the end of the applicable time when they can sell this thing," said Lunde.