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UAE's Rafale deal is no mirage

Posted 19 December 2011 · Add Comment

After a long and often tortuous process, the UAE is understood to be in the final stage of negotiations for the procurement of about 60 Dassault Rafale fighters with many industry insiders predicting that contracts could be signed during the Dubai Airshow. Jon Lake reports.


On September 8, Les Echos reported that Dassault had sent a negotiating team to the UAE ‘last weekend’ to wrap up the final details of its technical and commercial Rafale proposal, apparently due for delivery.

Until now, the UAE’s plans to replace its Dassault Mirage 2000-9 fighters have been slow to come to fruition, though French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s office first announced that the UAE government was in discussions to buy the twin-engined Rafale as long ago as June 2008, after the French fighter had originally lost out to the F-16 Fighting Falcon in 1998 (the Rafale having been shortlisted with the F-16 in September 1996).

The F-16E/F was never likely to fulfil the UAE’s fighter need on its own, as the nation needed a tactical fighter that could carry categories of weapons that the US would never integrate on the aircraft in order to avoid upsetting Israeli and other regional sensibilities.

The Mirage 2000 was retained in the UAE inventory (and indeed the existing fleet was augmented by the purchase of new Mirage 2000-9s, and by the conversion of existing aircraft to -9 standards) specifically to give the UAE AF&AD a platform that could carry weapons like the Al Hakim stand-off PGM (though in the event this would later be integrated on the F-16E/F) and the Black Shaheen Cruise missile – a variant of MBDA’s Scalp/Storm Shadow family.

The UAE needs a Mirage 2000 replacement that will also provide this kind of capability, either with the existing Black Shaheen, or with a new weapon in the same class.

US offers to provide the Super Hornet with SLAM-ER missiles probably did not meet the UAE’s aspirations for stand-off missile range, and certainly did not match the existing range capability of Black Shaheen.

The UAE never ran a full competition to select a fighter to replace the Mirage 2000s and simply opened negotiations with Dassault aimed at acquiring an improved and upgraded Rafale.

The UAE has periodically looked at competing aircraft and has talked to other suppliers – fuelling regular reports of a change of heart over the French fighter. But despite requesting technical information on the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet in September 2010, the more recent reports of negotiations with Lockheed Martin for the supply of more F-16E/F Desert Falcons (because the French offering of an advanced Rafale version was reportedly seen as too expensive), and optimistic noises emanating from the Eurofighter consortium, the UAE’s eyes have kept returning to the Rafale, which has continued to be aggressively and energetically marketed to the Emiratis.

In mid-December 2010 Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, crown prince of Abu Dhabi and commander of the UAE armed forces, requested that France renew its proposal to sell up to 60 Rafales to the UAE during a visit to Paris.

France has been assiduous in enhancing and improving its relationship and military co-operation with the UAE and has established a permanent military presence in the Gulf, forming Base Aerienne 104 with a rotational deployment of Rafales and Mirage 2000s as a French enclave at Al Dhafra airbase, and also setting up a naval station at the port of Mina Zayed.

Many insiders now seem to accept that the Rafale is a ‘done deal’ in the UAE.

This is surprising in some respects as, although the Rafale performed extremely impressively during recent operations over Libya, the UAE has made no secret of the fact that it requires an aircraft significantly more advanced than the current Rafale versions in service with the Armée de l’Air.

It specifies a longer-range active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar with ground moving target detection and tracking (GMTI/GMTT), ‘interlaced’ air-to-air and air-to-ground modes, a more capable version of the Spectra electronic warfare suite, integration with MBDA’s Meteor long-range missile and, crucially, with more powerful versions of the Snecma M88 engines, producing more than nine tonnes of thrust (about 1.5 tonnes more than the current engine).

Over time, Meteor integration and some AESA and Spectra improvements have become a funded part of the core Rafale programme, but the Armée de l’Air has no stated or funded requirement for a more powerful engine, which the UAE reportedly still wants and which many analysts believe would be essential for long range air-to-ground operations with heavy weapons in the region (and certainly to allow carriage of a three-missile heavy strike loadout using the Black Shaheen). Nor are planned French radar and Spectra improvements believed to be sufficient to meet UAE requirements.

There may also have been a stumbling block in that the UAE is understood to have demanded that the existing Mirage 2000-9s must be ‘bought back’ by the French either for resale or for use by the French forces at an estimated unit price of €20 million – equivalent to about €1.2 billion for the whole fleet.

Historically, Dassault has tended not to use its own resources to fund military aircraft development, preferring its government clients to do so. In this case, the cost of developing the upgrades required by the UAE has been estimated at 4-5 billion euros – or more modestly at €2 billion ($2.9 billion), a sum which the UAE has reportedly expected the French side to pay.

Though the UAE has previously invested in the development of more advanced versions of fighters that it has bought (funding the development of both the Mirage 2000-9 and of the Block 60 F-16E/F in return for a share of profits from any export of aircraft with the features it had paid to develop), it seems not to have the appetite to do so for a modernised and advanced version of the Rafale, or it may be disinclined to be the launch customer and ‘guinea pig’ for such a variant.

The UAE’s licensing-for-exports deals associated with the Mirage 2000 earned hundreds of millions of dollars when Mirage 2000-9 technology was sold to other customers, and similar arrangements regarding the F-16E/F promised to earn the Emirates more if other countries buy similarly upgraded versions of the F-16E/F. But being a launch customer can bring disadvantages and problems and the UAE may have wished to avoid these, or may have felt that further Rafale export sales are unlikely.

But whatever the reason for the UAE’s unwillingness to fund the required Rafale improvements, it seems as though the deal is ‘back on’, perhaps with the UAE having scaled back its requirements, or perhaps with the French government having decided that it is willing to ‘bite the bullet’ and fund the necessary development in order to try to win what could be a pivotal first export order for the Rafale.

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