Eric Trappier’s Perspective on French Arms Exports and Cooperation: December 2023


By Pierre Tran

Paris – The wars in Ukraine and Gaza have not fueled fresh sales of the Rafale, Eric Trappier, executive chairman of Dassault Aviation, prime contractor for the French-built  fighter jet, said Dec. 5.

“These two crises are very hard, very sad, (but) there has been no impact,” he told the Defense Journalists Association, a press club, when asked whether the two conflicts had sparked greater interest in foreign orders for the French fighter.

Indeed the fighting in those two regions had “slowed discussions,” he said.

Exports are critical to Dassault, as Paris has slowed orders for the French fighter in a bid to control the public purse.

There has been much talk in France of a “war economy,” since president Emmanuel Macron used that term following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February last year. The French head of state and commander in chief brought forward a seven-year military budget law, and parliament adopted in July an increased funding of €413 billion ($447 billion), partly in response to the incursion ordered by Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Trappier pointed out the increased military orders consisted mainly of artillery and shells, and the Rafale did not really feature in that war economy.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has asked France for details of the Rafale, an interest that reflected Germany’s problems with an export sale of the Eurofighter Typhoon to Riyadh, he said. Berlin’s refusal to give a green light for the Eurofighter stems from Saudi Arabia’s ordering the killing of a Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, in Istanbul in 2018, and support for a civil war in Yemen. The Green party, a key German coalition partner, objects to alleged Saudi failings in observing human rights, and rejects arms sale to Riyadh.

Such German resistance to an arms export deal was not a good sign, Trappier said, raising doubt over foreign sales of a planned fighter to be built by Paris, Berlin and Madrid.

There is an updated Franco-German bilateral treaty on arms exports, but there is concern in French industrial circles over future authorization from Berlin for foreign sales of weapons built under cooperation.

Meanwhile, the Dassault top executive said the Italian government had made an “anti-Rafale” move in blocking a $1.8 billion acquisition by Safran, a French company, of an Italian company building flight control systems. Safran builds M88 engines and other equipment for the Rafale, including the AASM powered smart bombs.

The Italian prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, said Nov. 22, the government was using its “golden share,” to forbid Safran’s offer for Microtecnica, on the grounds the company was a strategic asset and key supplier to the Italian services. Microtecnica is a unit of the U.S. company Collins Aerospace.

Italy is a partner nation in the Eurofighter Typhoon consortium, along with Britain, Germany, and Spain. Rome is also partnered on the F-35, flying and assembling the U.S. fighter which Dassault sees as its arch rival in the European market.

There is a certain amount of interoperability between the F-35 and the Rafale, Trappier said on the sidelines of the meeting with the press club, with the Nato Link 16 communications protocol, but that allowed a basic exchange of information, and the question was what lay in the future.

France has partnered with Germany and Spain on an ambitious project for a future combat air system (FCAS), which rests on a planned new generation fighter, remote carrier drones, and a combat cloud for an extended network of command and control.

Airbus Defence and Space leads work on that European combat cloud, while Dassault is  architect and prime contractor on the new fighter. Simulation studies are being conducted on the FCAS project at the Dassault head office in Saint Cloud, in the suburbs of the capital, and designing algorithms that support the pilot are part of the work, Trappier said.

“We know exactly what we want to do,” he said, with the combat drones flying with the new fighter.

There is a French plan to build a combat drone to fly with the Rafale, separate from the FCAS project, which is due to enter service in 2040. That earlier combat drone will be larger than the Neuron, a technology demonstrator for an unmanned combat air vehicle, which is continuing to be used for flight tests at Istres, a French air base, southern France. The French services initially held Neuron in low regard, something of a “gadget,” he said, but grew increasingly attracted to the project, which included the launch of weapons.

Meanwhile, Trappier ruled out any prospect of cooperation with the Tempest-Global Combat Air Programme, as two of the core partners, Britain and Japan, are not “European.”

Italy is the third partner nation in that project, which competes with the European FCAS led by France, Germany, and Spain. Belgium expects to sign a formal agreement later this month on gaining observer status on the FCAS, and hopes to join as a full partner in the following phase, building a technology demonstrator to fly in 2029. Brussels is keen to join the FCAS, to win high-value aeronautical work for Belgian companies.

That has irked Trappier, who points out the European project is not to promote jobs, but to meet military requirements, the partner nations will buy the aircraft, and it is not clear Belgium will place orders for the new fighter. Brussels has ordered the F-35, but failed to win work share on that program.

On further orders for the Rafale, Trappier expects France to order 42 units later this month, comprising a planned batch of 30, and 12 to replace those sold second hand to Greece. There are also a further 26 Rafale expected to be ordered for the Indian navy, with Trappier appearing unconcerned India is due to hold general election next year. Indonesia is also expected to order a further 18-strong batch of the fighter.

Dassault has an order book for the Rafale which runs to 2032-33, he said, and the production rate is due to rise to three per month next year. That compares to a previous rate of one per month, or 11 per year, with the Marignane factory, outside Bordeaux, southwest France, closed for the month of August for the annual holiday.

That production rate of three per month could be increased, he said, if there were more orders.

Credit Photo: Dassault