#DXB11: Certain victory for Rafale turns uncertain

rafale dubai.jpgSo much for the rampant rumours (well, rampant throughout France anyway) that the UAE’s long-delayed fighter contract was a done-deal for the Rafale.

Everything we know about the United Arab Emirates fighter modernisation plans have turned upside down within the first 24h of the Dubai Air Show.

Quick summary: Dassault Rafale still in, Saab Gripen still out, Eurofighter Typhoon made a surprise entrance, Lockheed Martin F-16 Block 60 is now lurking and Boeing throws F-15 Silent Eagle into the mix.

And the UAE Air Force, meanwhile, confirmed it wants to buy a “next generation fighter” after 2018, when the Lockheed F-35 is, possibly, the only fighter of that general description outside of China and Russia still in production.

How did we get here?

The Rafale has been on the UAE’s shopping list since the mid-1990s, but somehow the deal keeps sliding to the right — and now risks evaporating entirely.

Riad Kahwaji, chief executive officer of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA), told The DEW Line that latest manoeuvres are a clear signal: the UAE air force thinks France’s price for the Rafale is too high. Major fighter deals are never immune from politics, but this deal is purely political. The UAE is buying the Rafale to balance its reliance on US-made weapons, including its fleet of 80 Lockheed F-16 Block 60s. Perhaps thinking the UAE has no other options, Dassault may have submitted a monopolistic price, Kahwaji said. 

Even after negotiating exclusively with France for more than three years, the UAE has just re-opened the competition. The DEW Line’s colleague, Craig Hoyle, broke the story on Flightglobal yesterday that the UAE issued a request for proposals to the Typhoon, setting up a second competition between the same pair of fighters vying for India’s medium multi-role aircraft (MMRCA).

But the toll of the prolonged negotiations could be even greater for the Rafale. According to Kahwaji, who is well connected in Abu Dhabi, the UAE has already informed Dassault that the deal has been reduced from 60 fighters, with the balance shifted to a follow-on order of some number of F-16 Block 60s. Northrop Grumman, which supplies the APG-80 agile beam radar for the Block 60, confirmed this strategy today. Northrop told my colleague Greg Waldron that the UAE is considering a follow-on order for the Block 60. We asked Lockheed to confirm, but company officials declined.

That brings us to the last wrinkle in the competition exposed during the last few hours. Boeing now confirms that the UAE Air Force asked the US government in August or September for classified briefings on the capabilities of the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and F-15E. The Eurofighter consortium might reply: So what? The UAE asked the UK government to provide a similar briefing on the Typhoon in October, and it was the only fighter that received an RfP in the last two weeks.

Boeing, however, thinks the UAE may have other ideas for the Super Hornet or Silent Eagle. After all, if the UAE is seeking to balance its reliance on US-made fighters, shifting the final assembly line from Fort Worth, Texas, to St. Louis, Missouri, is not going to do them any favours. Instead, Boeing believes the UAE may be thinking more about the “next generation fighter” requirement.

Lockheed, however, doesn’t seem worried. The F-35 is still barred by US export control officials for being sold or even marketed to the UAE, but that restriction will not last forever. Pressed to explain why he still cannot show the UAE so much as a desk model of the F-35, Lockheed vice president of business development replied: “It’s coming, it’s coming.”

All of this can be little consolation to the fighter made in Merignac, France. No one doubts the French have a world-class fighter, but their negotiators have talked their way out of certain victory before. Allowing the UAE sale to slip away may not be devastating to the Rafale, with Brazil, India, Kuwait and Switzerland still in talks with the French. But such a loss would surely be long remembered in the industry as yet another can’t-miss deal that only the French could mess up.   

(Photo: Tom Gordon/Flightglobal)


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