French Arms Exports, 2020


By Pierre Tran Paris – France last year won arms export contracts worth €4.9 billion ($5.6 billion), down from €8.3 billion in 2019, reflecting lock down and governments freezing military budgets in response to the pandemic crisis, Hervé Grandjean, spokesman for the defense ministry, said June 2.

“This retreat is no surprise for the armed forces ministry,” Grandjean told a news conference on the government report to parliament on French sales of weapons to foreign clients.

For arms companies, executives were unable to fly overseas to pitch products and trade shows were cancelled, he said, while prospective client nations postponed military projects due to budgetary uncertainty and a focus on health spending.

That meant there were no major arms deals last year for France, with most of the foreign sales consisting of small and medium contracts of less than €200 million, covering spares, service, and training, he said.

The outlook, however, for 2021, was a rebound in orders, with total sales worth “at least €10 billion,” he said. Some €7.5 billion was forecast from three deals for the Dassault Aviation Rafale fighter jet, with “other good news” expected.

The increase stemmed from Rafale orders worth €2.5 billion from Greece, €4 billion from Egypt, and €1 billion from Croatia. In the case of the latter, France expects to sign a contract later this year, he said.

Those fighter jet orders would go on top of the forecast €3 billion-€4 billion from small and medium deals, the cornerstone of foreign sales.

A greater parliamentary oversight of arms exports was one of the reforms called for by a June 2 report from Fondation Jean Jaures, a think tank, which also cited the update on the multiyear defense budget law and Franco-German military industrial cooperation as showing the need for political reform on defense.

“The reasons for this imbalance are to be found in institutions, but also in the political treatment of defense,” said the report drafted by Axel Nicholas. “As the elections of 2022 approach, changes can be considered to re-establish the democratic functioning of our institutions.”

Berlin Boosts Export Cooperation

On the German arms embargo on Saudi Arabia, Berlin has allowed delivery of equipment for programs based on European cooperation, German news agency DPA reported Dec. 10. That exception was granted as part of Germany’s extension of its embargo to the end of 2021.

That effective lightening of Berlin’s clampdown of arms deals with Saudi Arabia  implied European missile maker MBDA could deliver weapons to the Saudi air force, an implication which was altogether logical, said a source who has followed closely the deal. The Berlin embargo had previously prevented the MBDA German unit from shipping equipment to the Middle East client nation.

Germany had imposed that embargo in response to the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Turkey in November 2018, a  blockade of arms sales which France had publicly called to be lifted.

On the French league table, Saudi Arabia ranked first for foreign sales, buying €703 million of arms last year, Grandjean said, with the US second with €433 million, followed by Morocco with €425 million, the UK with €290 million, India with €285 million, Greece with €282 million, and Senegal with €217 million. The African nation ordered last year Piriou offshore patrol vessels.

The sales to Saudi Arabia were composed largely of Thales air defense radar and communications and control, and ECA maritime anti-mine robots, while the US orders were mostly composed of sonars. The UK sales were mostly munitions.

France is Third Largest Arms Exporter

France came third in the world rankings for foreign arms sales, after the US and Russia, the SIPRI think tank reported, Grandjean said, followed by Germany and China as fourth and fifth.

Based on 2016-2020 sales, the US held 37 percent of arms exports, Russia with 20 percent, France 8.2 percent, Germany 5.5 percent, China 5.2 percent, and the UK 3.3 percent, the report from the Swedish think tank said.

Europe accounted 25 percent of French arms sales, with 15 percent from European Union members and 10 percent from other European nations, Grandjean said. The UK and Greece were in the top six client nations.

The Middle East accounted for 24 percent, 22 percent from Asia, and 16 percent from Africa.

That leading position for Europe showed the priority Paris has set on sales into the European market, he said, with last year marking the second time the continent had accounted for 25 percent of sales.

The report shows Australian orders accounted for €199 million last year. The 12-strong Australian submarine project, led by French shipbuilder Naval Group, is expected to bring in a total €34 billion.

Vietnam ordered €4.5 million of French kit.

The Greek order and Croatian selection of Rafale signalled the importance of France selling second hand fighters, as the jets may be used, but new missiles have been ordered, including Safran AASM powered smart bombs for the Greek air force.

Export Licenses as Sales Indicators

Companies must apply for French licenses to make a sales pitch to a prospective foreign client, and in general five to 10 percent of licenses lead to contracts, Grandjean said. These licenses detail the various options offered, including the maximum size of the potential deal.

There were some 4,000 licenses approved last year, indicating future sales efforts to win contracts.

France rejected 19 license applications last year after interministerial review of the prospective pitches to foreign states.

Under the European Union Coarm working party on foreign arms sales, if a member state receives an application for a license for which another member state has previously refused, the latter is expected to share information and explain why it rejected the previous application.

The government is studying steps to take in the light of a Nov. 18 2020 parliamentary report on the control of arms exports, Grandjean said.

That report, drafted by parliamentarians Jacques Maire and Michèle Tabarot, called for a detailed and active scrutiny of the authorization of arms sales by a joint committee of the senate and national assembly, rather than the government simply reporting to parliament deals done in the previous year.