The sale of 80 Rafale fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates was not only deemed "historic", but it also seemed to confirm the continuing commercial success of the French fighter, a twin-jet aircraft able to operate from either land or an aircraft carrier.
A December 3 agreement for France to sell 80 Rafale fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was hailed as "historic" by French Minister of Defence Florence Parly. The CEO of Rafale manufacturer Dassault Aviation, Eric Trappier, also proclaimed his delight at the deal, which he described as the "most important contract ever obtained by the French military aeronautics industry". Trappier was understandably euphoric as the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed ben Zayed al-Nahyane, signed the €16 billion agreement (including €2 billion for weapons), a record for the French aircraft manufacturer.
For Dassault - and also for Thales (the company that supplies all the Rafale's internal electrical systems), Safran (which provides the engines) and several hundred other subcontractors - the deal means guaranteed business for more than six years. It takes at least one month to manufacture a Rafale.
Phoenix rising from the ashes?
The sale - which is also good economic news for French President Emmanuel Macron, just over four months before the next presidential election - further reinforces the Rafale's reputation as the "phoenix" of military aviation.
During its more than 25 years of existence, the jet has faced challenges and emerged in different variations. Presented as one of the most advanced fighters at its inception, the Rafale has struggled to sell abroad.
Negotiations for the sale of Rafale fighters have been dragging on for more than a decade, with Abu Dhabi publicly rebuffing France's offer to supply 60 planes in 2011 as "uncompetitive and unworkable".
Until 2015, Dassault Aviation was fighting an uphill battle - and it was not for lack of trying. Whether in Brazil, India or in the UAE (negotiations had been going on with Abu Dhabi since 2008), the Rafale was deemed too expensive: Its selling price was about €100 million, not to mention its maintenance costs, which were "among the highest on the market", according to a report published by the University of Toulon in 2011. Its competitors, such as the multinational Eurofighter, the Swedish Gripen fighters and American jets, often sell for less than €100 million.
In fact, the French aircraft was locked in a vicious circle: Dassault Aviation needed more orders before economies of scale would allow it to sell at a lower price, but countries were reluctant to commit to purchasing because of the price. And the jet's sales to the French military alone would never be large enough.
Eventually the Rafale demonstrated its usefulness in Libya and Afghanistan as the first decade of the 2000s came to a close, arousing more international interest. Its performance in battle conditions was the tipping point, according to La Tribune business daily.
In 2015 Egypt became the first Rafale buyer outside of the French military, purchasing some 20 jets. Other contracts followed - with India, Qatar, Greece and Croatia - until the UAE this week became the sixth member of the club of Rafale's foreign customers.
This latest contract means more Rafale jets are now sold abroad than in France (236 international sales versus 192 domestic).
Long shadow of the American F-35
But the renaissance of the Rafale - once described as a "cursed aircraft" and now considered a success story - is not so impressive when viewed in the context of the broader international arms market, said Alexandre Vautravers, arms expert and editor of the Swiss Military Review (RMS). "This achievement still remains far below what the direct competition - starting with the American F-35 made by Lockheed Martin - announced at the same time," he told FRANCE 24.
Lockheed Martin has already sold nearly 1,000 F-35s worldwide, not counting orders from the US Army itself. And more orders mean the US manufacturer can do what Dassault Aviation cannot: lower its price. The F-35A model costs less than $80 million (€70 million).
This leaves the Rafale in an uncomfortable position. The F-35 is cheaper, newer (it has been in service for only 15 years) and "40% more efficient, according to the estimates of the Swiss authorities", explained Vautravers.
Both aircraft occupy the same market niche - multi-purpose or "omni-purpose" fighter jets, to use official Dassault Aviation jargon. During a single mission they are capable of establishing air superiority - the traditional mission of fighter jets - as well as carrying out bombing and ground-support operations.
But the F-35 is also a stealth fighter jet, which is not the case with the Rafale, and has a greater range.
A geopolitical weapon?
The main advantage of the French aircraft is strategic.
"The biggest selling point for the Rafale jet is that it bypasses any possible American embargo," said Vautravers. It is better not to be solely dependent on the US for defense equipment in case Washington imposes economic sanctions. The "Rafale - like Russian systems - allow people to diversify", he said.
Overall, Rafales are selling better now "because there is a growing market", Vautravers said. The real test of how to evaluate how well the French aircraft is doing in a competitive market is to look at the countries where Dassault has found new buyers.
Most Rafale sales have been made "in countries that had already bought French aircraft", he said. Egypt, Greece and the UAE all signed up to renew their French fleets. Even India already had French fighter planes. France has not managed to attract any new customers, only maintained old ones.
Ongoing negotiations to sell 36 French planes to Indonesiq are therefore key for Dassault, as a deal would finally bring France a brand new client.
This article was translated from the original in French.