The Big Engine That Couldn't

February 10th, 2008  

Topic: The Big Engine That Couldn't

The Big Engine That Couldn't
Joshua Levine 02.25.08, 12:00 AM ET

France's Dassault has a great new fighter jet-- that no one wants to buy.

Hervé Morin, France's new defense minister, has an easy smile, but he didn't have an easy time keeping it during the press conference he gave in mid-December. Morin was outlining a new program to cut through the bureaucratic logjam that was hampering French weapons exports.
Weapons mean almost as much to the French economy as wine. The nation sells three times as many dollars' worth of fighter planes, frigates and tanks as it does champagne--$9 billion a year. But France is no longer the global arms merchant it used to be and has lately slipped from number three in the world to number four, behind the U.S., Great Britain and Russia. Reporters kept picking at the scab: Wasn't this all the fault of France's fancy new Rafale fighter bomber? In October France thought it had a $2.7 billion contract for 18 Rafales from King Mohammed VI of Morocco. At the last minute the king changed his mind and bought 24 F-16s from Lockheed for $2.1 billion. Morocco is a former French protectorate; the snub still rankles. "That was a failure," Morin grimaced at the press conference. "I don't want to go over it again."
Rafale means a violent gust of wind in French, but the two-engine Mach 2 all-purpose fighter-bomber has yet to stir even a faint breeze in the export market. You can't blame France's flagging weapons business entirely on the Rafale, of course. Still, the bad-luck fighter-bomber illustrates all the ways the world has changed and France hasn't.
In the early 1980s France decided to replace the seven warplanes in its fleet with one all-purpose fighter-bomber. The Rafale's big selling point is versatility. Its avionics, from the Neuilly-sur-Seine electronics firm Thales (other-otc: THLEF.PK - news - people ), lets it switch instantly among air-to-air, air-to-ground and air-to-sea missions. In the past, fighters had to reprogram if they wanted to shift from vaporizing tanks, say, to eliminating ships.

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February 10th, 2008  
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