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France's Rafale fighter jet is so popular its manufacturer can't keep up

Michael Peck   

France's Rafale fighter jet is so popular its manufacturer can't keep up
  • France's Dassault Aviation may not be able to meet demand for its Rafale fighter jet.
  • The Rafale has become popular with India and several Middle Eastern nations.

France's Rafale fighter has become so popular that the manufacturer may not be able to meet demand, according to a British think tank. And that could have global implications for nations looking to build up their air forces amid conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East, but who want to avoid the political strings attached to the purchase of Russian or US combat aircraft.

Rafale manufacturer Dassault Aviation "regularly makes a selling point of its ability to begin delivering Rafale combat aircraft to prospective customers just three years from contract signature," according to an analysis by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. "However, the company's recent flurry of Rafale sales could make that 36-month commitment more challenging and may even jeopardize some future deals."

The Rafale ("Squall") is flown, or has been ordered by, eight nations: Egypt, Greece, India, Qatar, Croatia, the UAE, and Indonesia, as well as the French Air Force and Navy. The jet first flew in 1986, and is considered a generation 4.5 fighter, with some advanced features such as limited stealth, the ability to supercruise (fly supersonic without using fuel-guzzling afterburners), and the capability to launch long-range missiles such as the Meteor and Mica.

France has bought 234 Rafales, and in addition, another 261 have been ordered by various nations, according to Defense News. The question is whether Dassault can meet the demand. IISS calculates Dassault's production backlog at 228 aircraft. The crunch will be particularly acute between 2026 to 2033, when Dassault will need to deliver 174 Rafales to France, 42 to Indonesia, 80 to the UAE and 10 for Egypt.

"The French aircraft maker aimed to produce 15 Rafales last year but only completed 13," IISS said. "The company has not yet given 2024 production guidance, though output will likely increase this year and next, given the strong demand. Even so, it is unlikely that annual aircraft numbers will quickly reach mid-20s."

"If Dassault production averages 20 Rafales per year across both 2024 and 2025, it leaves 188 aircraft to be delivered between 2026 and 2033. This would necessitate a delivery rate of almost 24 aircraft per year."

Difficulties manufacturing modern fighters are hardly unique to Dassault. In 1944, at Ford's Willow Run, Michigan factory, a four-engine B-24 Liberator heavy bomber rolled off the production line every 63 minutes. In 2024, Lockheed Martin is struggling to deliver around a hundred F-35s this year, with each stealth fighter requiring around 40,000 labor hours to complete. Not only are today's aircraft more complicated to build, but they also comprise huge numbers of components often spread across global supply chains.

But the F-35 does have the advantage of being a global fighter manufactured by several nations, while the Rafale is a national fighter limited by French resources, argued aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia in September.

While Dassault can take some steps such as switching civilian aircraft production to Rafales, bottlenecks are likely to remain. "While Dassault relies heavily on a domestic supply chain for Rafale that insulates it somewhat from global supply-chain snarls, the company and its suppliers are not immune to them," IISS noted. "Engineering-talent shortages could also derail a sharp increase in Rafale manufacturing. Realistically, the Rafale industrial machine would be challenged to more than double its annual output."

Nor are sporadic deliveries of a couple of Rafales here and there an option. "Most new customers placing a sizeable contract would want a delivery rate of at least six aircraft per year in order to train coherent groups of air and ground crew and build up full squadrons at a sensible rate — and achieving those numbers may be a hurdle too high," IISS warned.

Until recently, sales of the Rafale have been lackluster. But many nations are beefing up their air forces, even as Lockheed Martin has its hands full making enough F-35s, Russia is busy trying to replace aircraft losses from the Ukraine war despite Western sanctions, and many nations are hesitant to buy Chinese jets.

All of which is a plus for the Rafale. In a world where fighter sales have been dominated by US and Russian designs since World War II, French jets have offered customers an alternative. In the 1960s and 1970s, Dassault's agile delta-winged Mirages proved highly effective when flown by air forces such as Israel's.

Today, the Rafale is an option for nations that don't want the political and economic baggage that comes with buying American and Russian aircraft such as the F-35, F-16, and Su-35. Or, don't want to depend on a single nation to provide jets.

This helps explain why the Rafale has become popular with India and several Middle Eastern nations. But the downside for Rafale customers is that they are dependent on a single nation whose defense-industrial base is already struggling to supply Ukraine and replenish France's own military.

Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds an MA in political science from Rutgers Univ. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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