France's Dassault Aviation is philosophical about losing the Singaporean fighter contest to Boeing - its eyes are fimly on future technologies and European co-operation
Singapore’s recent rejection of the Dassault Rafale has dented the European manufacturer’s ambitions of rapidly advancing the technological capabilities of France’s “omnirole” fighter, despite years of intense marketing in the Asian state.
The company’s second defeat to Boeing’s heavily evolved F-15 Eagle in the last three years, the Singaporean decision also underlined the importance of a strategy under which Dassault is already looking beyond the production life of its flagship product to investigate unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) technologies with companies from at least five other European nations.
While small, Singapore’s potentially 24-aircraft requirement to replace its McDonnell Douglas A-4 Skyhawks was viewed by industry watchers as a key test of the nation’s willingness to look beyond its incumbent supplier – the USA – to fill a procurement gap before its expected purchase of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF).
Ultimately, factors including South Korea’s prior selection of the F-15K and the strength of the lobbying exerted on Singapore by the US government proved key bargaining factors, believes Dassault.
But in marked contrast to the legal challenge launched after its controversial defeat by Boeing in South Korea in 2002, Dassault appeared philosophical when it announced its elimination from the Singapore contest. In early September the company blamed the weakness of the US dollar for harming French prospects, but claimed political considerations had played a major role, saying: “America’s might once again bore out the old Chinese proverb: bamboo always leans the way it’s pushed the hardest.”
It is still too soon to predict the knock-on effect of Dassault’s failure to secure a launch export customer for Rafale through two Asian competitions, although its long-held plans to field export-standard enhancements are almost certain to suffer. Sales to South Korea or Singapore would have accelerated planned product enhancements such as more-powerful Snecma M88 engines and an active electronically scanned array for the Rafale’s Thales-supplied RBE2 radar. Now in development for delivery after 2012 using French state investment, the radar enhancement could have been brought into service earlier with the introduction of funds from a foreign customer, says Thales (Flight International, 14-20 June).
France has ordered 120 of the 294 Rafales it plans to acquire for its air force and navy, and production is now guaranteed until 2012. The air force is due to have received 14 production aircraft by year-end, with its first Rafale squadron to stand up in September 2006. But a current production rate of around one aircraft a month remains well below an efficient level, and places greater pressure on the company to secure export success in the near future. “We won’t achieve an economical production rate with our latest order for the French armed forces,” says a company source. The Dassault/Snecma/Thales team is preparing to go head-to-head with the four-nation Eurofighter Typhoon – an aircraft that the Rafale outlasted in the Singapore competition – in a lucrative contest to equip the Greek air force, while both types are also manoeuvering in the initial stages of a longer-term opportunity in Saudi Arabia.
Perhaps sensing the future difficulties in securing export business in a global market dominated by US designs such as the F-15 and Lockheed’s F-16 and JSF, plus the sheer cost of investing in unmanned air vehicle technologies, Dassault last year launched a programme which will see the governments and national industries of France, Greece, Italy, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland co-operate in the design, manufacture and flight test of a UCAV demonstrator. Dubbed Neuron, the programme is led by France’s DGA procurement agency and Dassault, which as prime contractor will be responsible for the demonstrator’s flight control system and final assembly ahead of a 2010 first flight.
Planned for launch at June’s Paris air show, the €400 million ($480 million) Neuron project awaits the completion of formal approvals, with a final commitment still pending from the Swedish government, which has already sunk considerable money into a national demonstration programme, but remains committed to the collaborative venture. Belgium is also considering joining the project, says Dassault.
One Neuron air vehicle will be built for the demonstration programme, which will involve test flights in France, Italy and Sweden, says Dassault. To be powered by a Rolls-Royce Turbomeca Adour turbofan, the UCAV will have a maximum take-off weight of 6,000kg (13,200lb) and be capable of reaching a cruise speed of Mach 0.7 at altitudes up to 35,000ft (10,700m). The 9.3m-long air vehicle will have a 12.5m wing span and two internal weapons bays, enabling it to carry two 250kg bombs. To have a limited mission endurance of 60-90min, the platform will not be equipped with a radar, instead receiving targeting information from off-board sources.
Current workshare plans for the Neuron effort will see Alenia Aeronautica of Italy provide the smart weapons bay, air data system and electrical power system; EADS Casa of Spain the wing and ground control station; Hellenic Aerospace Industry of Greece the aft fuselage, engine exhaust and ground test; Ruag of Switzerland windtunnel tests and weapons interface; Sweden’s Saab the equipped fuselage, avionics and fuel systems; and Thales the air vehicle’s datalink. While the partner companies will draw on their individual experience in developing unmanned systems, Dassault says there is no formal agreement to share information from Alenia’s Sky-X or Saab’s Sharc UCAV demonstrator efforts. The test programme will also not include use of Alenia’s smart weapons bay concept on a manned surrogate, nor the operation of the Neuron demonstrator alongside manned fighters, says Dassault vice-president for international relations Yves Robins.
The Neuron programme is now in a feasibility phase set to conclude late next year, ahead of development and manufacturing activities from mid-2007. But Neuron is intended to achieve much more than a series of test flights by late 2011. Dassault describes the initiative as seeking to advance technologies required for either a next-generation manned fighter aircraft or an operational UCAV. “The European aerospace industry needs to capitalise on the common know-how acquired with its different fighter aircraft of the current generation to push ahead future technologies, including total stealthiness, advanced composite structures, automation and artificial intelligence,” the company says.
Dassault’s defence activities paled against the success of its Falcon business jet family in volume of orders secured in the first six months of this year, with military business accounting for just 11% of consolidated orders totalling €2.2 billion. However, while involving only a small number of airframes, defence sales remain highly significant to Dassault’s bottom line, accounting for 45% of consolidated sales worth €1.1 billion in the same period of 2005. Export business related to legacy products like the Mirage 2000 is also important to Dassault, with sales worth €330 million in the first half of this year – an 11% increase over the same period in 2004.
With its Rafale business for the French air force and navy expected to run at a steady but slow rate until it has export success, Dassault is looking at other near-term ways of boosting its sales to military users, including additional special mission derivatives of its Falcon-series aircraft.
With reaction to the proposed ATL3 version of its Atlantique maritime patrol aircraft having been so muted that Dassault terminated the project, plans for a maritime-patrol variant of its long-range Falcon 900DX were unveiled at June’s Paris air show as a low-cost alternative to Boeing’s 737-based P-8A multi-mission maritime aircraft and surplus Lockheed Martin P-3 Orions (Flight International, 28 June–4 July). The company has sold earlier model Falcons to armed forces users for a variety of roles, and believes its business jet products could have greater application for such tasks over the coming years.
In another example of international co-operation, Dassault is part of the industry working group now promoting the Advanced European Jet Pilot Training – or Eurotraining – initiative to up to 12 European nations. The company is not, however, offering a new product as part of the scheme, which Italy’s Aermacchi hopes to address using its developmental M-346 and M-311 trainers, but could promote the extended use of the French air force’s Alpha Jets as an interim step.
Although it lost in Singapore and has had its maritime-patrol plans knocked back in Europe, Dassault is preparing itself for a future of widespread co-operation. But collaboration under the terms of Neuron – where Dassault is prime contractor and will conduct half of the work – is a highly favourable model for the French company that would not be replicated in a future multinational fighter development. France cannot afford to go it alone next time around as it did with the Rafale; a reality which will perhaps place Europe’s next-generation manned or unmanned strike aircraft in a stronger position to defeat their future US rivals.