As polite laughter rippled through a sunny conference room on the top floor of Thales' Paris headquarters last week, the man leading the French industry heavyweight's defence aerospace business sat quietly confident that the words he had just uttered would come to pass.
"Growth will be huge because we are going to sell the Rafale worldwide," Thales Airborne Systems chief executive Pierre-Yves Chaltiel had said. "I'm not joking at all," he added, suggesting that the assembled journalists return next year to review progress on the export campaign.
Rafale, equipped with €15 million ($19 million) of Thales equipment per shipset, is one of three pillars upon which the company is building its defence strategy, alongside medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE)/tactical unmanned air vehicles and mission aircraft.
The theory goes that nations that operate US- or Russian-built combat aircraft have tended to stick with their traditional suppliers, but "today we are addressing some countries which are already equipped with dual fleet", says Chaltiel. For example, Greece has US- and French-built fighters, while India has a mix of Russian and French. "We are seriously addressing these countries, with a very high-ranked supporter in President Sarkozy."
FIVE YEARS AHEAD
A key milestone reached this month is the transition into production of the RBE-2 active electronically scanned array radar for the Rafale, which will be offered to export customers. "Our feeling is that we are five years ahead of any other European industry in this field," says Chaltiel.
The French manufacturer is also eyeing the lucrative market for upgraded fighter radars.
"There is a strong recommendation from the [US Department of Defense] not to equip American platforms with our technology. It's a pity, but it's a reality," says Chaltiel. "Our main market today is the retrofit of the French platforms which have been sold worldwide - Mirage, therefore."
UAV and mission aircraft activities are pushing Thales into the role of prime contractor, notably for the UK's €1 billion Watchkeeper programme. It is focusing on MALE and tactical UAVs in line with the French defence ministry's requirements and is proposing a similar tactical solution to that of the UK, based on Elbit Systems Hermes 450 platform.
"France has launched only R&D programmes at this point in time in UAVs," says Chaltiel. "Now it has to go into real programmes. In the field of tactical UAVs Thales is proposing solutions which are combat proven, both in the very short term to equip the French army, but also for the real programme that will be equipping the French forces in the next years," he adds.
"We had the chance to build a real capability in Thales out of the Watchkeeper programme."
For MALE UAVs Thales, which has partnered with Dassault and Indra, believes that French and Spanish requirements can be aligned, but it is not seeking to meet Germany's need for a high-altiude reconnaissance system. "Then it will be, as we say in French, un mouton à cinq pattes - a sheep with five legs. A strange animal that tries to do everything, but does everything badly."
He dismisses EADS's offer for Thales to participate in the Advanced UAV, which is studying a MALE UAV to be built beyond 2018. He says Thales was offered a 3% stake "which is nothing. Just the participation of the radar, as they are obliged to do so."
He adds: "We are proposing a capability that our air force needs at the horizon of 2011-12. We made a proposal with Israel Aerospace Industries for the Heron TP and proposed a progressive programme where the full operational capability would be available in 2012 for France and Spain."
Asked about matching the capabilities of the armed General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper acquired by the UK and Italy, Chaltiel "cannot elaborate, because these are classified features, but we can do the same".
He issues, however, a stark warning on the implications of European nations relying on US UAV systems: "We are fighting as Thales and as Europeans against the systematic will to buy American. What we are saying to European countries is that if they continue to just buy [MQ-1/9] Predators they will kill European capabilities in terms of maintaining design offices in Europe."
Mission aircraft, meanwhile, present a huge market. "At this point we are making one new offer nearly every month in different countries," says Chaltiel. "For example, we are bidding with Alenia Aeronautica in Italy for MPAs, but we are also bidding with different airframers in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates."