French aerospace conglomerate Thales is at the show optimistic of an export breakthrough in the Middle East region for the Dassault Rafale fighter, for which the company is a major supplier.

"There are a lot of export projects, and the Rafale is top of the list," says Thales aerospace senior vice-president Pierre-Eric Pommellet, who took up the reins at the division in June, shortly after the Paris air show.

"There are a huge number of prospects in defence aerospace," he adds.

Thales is expecting a fourth tranche of Rafale production to be signed off by the French government in "the coming weeks". This will introduce an active electronically scanned array radar, considered crucial to the Rafale's prospects in the export market.

Rafale take off - Dassault
 © Dassault

"It is paving the way in terms of technology for the export process," says Pommellet.

Topping the list of Rafale export candidates are Brazil, Switzerland and the United Arab Emirates.

"Negotiations with the UAE on Rafale are ongoing," he says. "I'm sure that this will be a very important topic at Dubai. This is the biggest project that we are involved in in this region."

Kuwait is also emerging as a strong prospect. "There have been some state-to-state talks, including on the Rafale. Kuwait could be a good customer for us, but it's their decision on whether to progress," he says.

Pommellet has worked at Thales for 12 years, most recently heading the manufacturer's services division.

Thales derives around 60% of its aerospace revenues from the defence sector, and 40% from civil. "This is coming from a position where we were more military," says Pommellet. "Civil and military are very complementary."

In terms of its military business, Thales is in a "good position" as there has been "no reduction" in French or UK government defence spending, he says.

Thales is also targeting the maritime patrol aircraft mission systems market and earlier this year launched a programme with the UAE to develop a mission system based on the Bombardier Dash 8 platform. This has reached the critical design review milestone.

"We are expecting further opportunities in Saudi Arabia and other Middle East countries," says Pommellet. Saudi Arabia is meanwhile looking at equipping EADS Casa C-295s for the MPA role.

Another area of increasing interest is unmanned air vehicles. The Hermes 450-based Watchkeeper UAV system under development for the British Army is due to have its first flight by the end of the year and become fully operational in 2010. An interim-capability Hermes 450 is already operational with the UK armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Despite extensive delays to the Airbus Military A400M, "we are ready for the first flight", says Pommellet.

On the civil side, Thales is in "quite a good situation" on Airbus programmes and 2009 has been "not a bad year for first-fit" of Thales equipment thanks to high production rates, although the situation is "much worse" in the business aviation sector, says Pommellet.

Airbus is indicating that it plans to hold A320-family single-aisle production at 34 aircraft a month for the time being, although "they've said there is a risk that they will have to adapt in the months to come".

Dassault Rafale
 © Dassault

Thales is also "of course seriously impacted by the 787 delay", he says. Encouragingly, first deliveries of the also-delayed Sukhoi Superjet are due to take place next year, while the Thales avionics-equipped ATR 42-600 recently made its first flight and the Gulfstream G650 ultra-long-range business jet - sporting a Thales fly-by-wire system - is due to fly imminently.

"Civil is kind of a foggy environment, but there are a lot of new projects and programmes. It looks like the macro-economics will recover," says Pommellet.

Commenting on Airbus chief salesman John Leahy's recent assertion that an all-new narrowbody is unlikely to arrive before 2024, he says: "Many events can happen. Let's be very careful. Fifteen years, if it is 15 years, is a very short timescale in aviation. The main issue for the next programme will be to manage risk. We strongly urge that these advanced studies should really be done now.

"I'm not so worried by the date. Whatever the date, everything starts now."

The in-flight entertainment sector is a "very active business" at the moment, says Pommellet. Thales is in discussions with several airlines on the introduction of an integrated broadband internet offering, following Lufthansa's recent decision to opt for rival Rockwell Collin's eXConnect system. "People want internet access," says Pommellet.

Support and services activities have been badly hit as airlines run down their spares stocks in an attempt to preserve cash. "They are not ordering what they were ordering. However, a lot of airlines decide at the very last moment of the year to buy spares. We are ready for that," says Pommellet.

Thales has set up a local joint venture with Abu Dhabi's Mubadala to repair IFE systems, which the French company "has plans to develop".

"We are developing joint ventures with local partners to provide local support for both civil and military programmes," he says.

Thales' military servicing business has had a "good year", because the French and UK air forces are "using their aircraft".

Thales has meanwhile cut back spending on air shows by around 20% this year, mainly by taking fewer staff.

"We are relying much more on the people who are already based in the country, and bringing them the management support," he says. "We have a very high efficiency."

Source: Flight Daily News