Julian Moxon/PARIS

Senior officials at the French defence ministry have taken over pricing negotiations with Dassault Aviation on multi-year procurement of the Rafale multi-role combat aircraft after talks with its weapons procurement division (DGA) broke down.

The DGA had told industry suppliers to the Rafale programme to reduce significantly the development cost of the first F2 standard air force aircraft if they were to be given a multi-year order. The F2 is the air-to-air/air-to-ground version that will be delivered to the air force from 2004.

DGA chief Jean-Yves Helmer, who is noted for his tough approach to cost reduction, had insisted on getting better value for money from defence contractors before signing a multi-year procurement contract.

The talks have taken on an added urgency as the defence ministry is now preparing the 1999 defence budget, but needs to settle the Rafale issue first. As a result, defence minister Alain Richard has ordered a cabinet-level team to push through an agreement as soon as possible. "They have gone over the heads of the DGA because of the rush to settle," says one source.

Only 13 Rafales have been ordered so far, most of them destined for the French Navy to equip the new Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier. The previous Government had promised to order 48 aircraft, worth Fr17 billion ($2.84 billion) after Dassault Aviation met demands for a 10% reduction in programme cost. The initiative was cancelled by the socialist Government after it came to power last year, pending a defence review.

The Rafale programme has suffered a series of slippages because of budget problems. The latest came in the 1997-2002 five-year spending plan, which delayed delivery of the first of 234 air force aircraft by two and a half years. The first squadron will now not enter service before the end of 2005.

The same budget also reduced the navy's complement from 86 aircraft to 60, with the first operational half-squadron entering service in mid-2001.

Source: Flight International