France’s Top Gun

by Sean Jackowitz:

ASSAULT Aviation is France’s only aerospace defense company. The company has long been one of the most successful competitors in the international defense market— over 25 air forces fly its aircraft. DASSAULT recently developed a “next-generation fighter”—the Rafale—to compete with similar efforts by U.S., Russian, and European companies. DASSAULT Aviation spokesman Luc Berger talked to the Globalist about the new aircraft, one of the most technologically advanced in the world.

YG: Today’s threats of terrorism and “rogue” states are very different than those of the Cold War. How has DASSAULT adapted?

LB: DASSAULT Aviation combat aircraft are probably among those most easily incorporated into the changes dictated by the new modern trends in military aviation. The reason for this inherent flexibility is to be found in France’s geostrategic position and defence policy. Superpowers, such as the United States and the former Soviet Union, always aimed at achieving total air dominance through a highly powerful but very expensive specialized aircraft. On the contrary, the French Air Force always relied on moderately sized combat aircraft that could flexibly be used for national air defense, combined operations within an allied coalition and independent overseas operations. This is why [our previous] combat aircraft have been so successful on the export market for many years and why, today, the Rafale omnirole fighter has been developed.

Simultaneously, this is exactly the type of operational needs that one can observe in modern-day air campaigns such as the first Gulf War, Kosovo, and Afghanistan— aircraft with precision-guided weapons and advanced sensors that require a very low level of maintenance and ground infrastructure.

YG: The development of the Rafale has paralleled the development of “next-generation” fighters of other countries. Why not import one of these aircraft?

LB: The origins of the Rafale can be traced to joint discussions between European nations taking place in the early 80’s. The French Forces wanted a balanced, multi-role aircraft that would be able to replace seven of their models by 2010. But the French also felt from their experience in the worldwide selling of combat aircraft that export aircraft had to be an enhanced—instead of downgraded—version of the national model and that specific export requirements had to be taken into account from the outset. This was the rationale that eventually led to the decision by the French industry and government to go in alone on Rafale and provide it with distinctive features tuned to worldwide market expectations. From the French taxpayers’ point of view, this decision proved to be the most economical one. The German taxpayer paid 35% per tax dollar more for a strictly air-to- air Eurofighter than the French taxpayer did for its “omnirole” Rafale.

YG: What has been DASSAULT’s experience with the Rafale in bidding contests around the world? For example, can you describe what happened in South Korea a couple years ago?

LB: Combat aircraft and major defense systems are not consumer goods: quality and price are not the main decision factors. Instead, the decision to select a specific type of combat aircraft is the result of a strange alchemy of technical, financial, industrial, technological, military, and above all political considerations. The French government is involved in the sale of French combat aircraft just as much as the American government is involved in the sale of U.S. combat aircraft. The government decides with which country the aircraft manufacturer is allowed to negotiate and supports the commercial proposal. Just like the U.S. government, the French government only allows the transfer of defense equipment to countries with which it maintains friendly relations and that pose no threat to regional stability or global stability.