The Rafale fighter, made by France's Dassault Aviation, is loaded with high-tech avionics, radar, and targeting systems. Now all it needs are customers. France has been peddling the supersonic jet since 2000 and hasn't sold a single one. In the latest setback, Brazil said on Jan. 17 that it would reopen bidding for a fighter contract worth up to $7 billion—a deal France had thought it was close to sealing last year. Neither Dassault nor the French Defense Ministry would comment on Brazil's decision.
The Rafale's plight signals the end of an era for France. With their Mirage fighter program, developed in the 1950s, the French were able to bolster their national defense, promote new technologies, and provide well-paying jobs—while recouping much of the cost by exporting hundreds of jets worldwide. Hoping to duplicate that model, the French government has spent some $53 billion on the Rafale, more than the country's $40 billion annual defense budget. But deal after deal has fallen through, with prospective buyers South Korea, Singapore, and Morocco choosing Boeing's (BA) F-15 and Lockheed Martin's (LMT) F-16 over the Rafale.
Midsize suppliers such as France are being outgunned by bigger competitors. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, for example, is being developed by a U.S.-led consortium of nine countries that plan to buy more than 2,500 of the planes. That will ensure plenty of revenue from production and upgrades. Britain, Germany, Italy, and Spain have similarly joined forces to produce the new Eurofighter jet. "Nationally driven, nationally financed and controlled production of the most advanced weapons systems is now the exclusive purview of the U.S. and Russia, and in the future, China as well," says Mark Bromley, a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a Swedish think tank.
Changing global politics has worked against France, too. During the Cold War, France successfully marketed the Mirage as an alternative to U.S. and Soviet planes. Other customers, such as the United Arab Emirates, bought French planes after the U.S. balked at providing high-tech weaponry. Now, though, the U.S. is eagerly seeking sales in the Gulf states. Many foreign governments, in turn, see arms deals as a way to forge closer defense ties with the U.S., says Loïc Tribot La Spière, an analyst at the Center for Studies and Prospective Strategy, a Paris think tank. "The sentiment is, 'We buy American because it assures security,' " he says.
The 93 Rafales produced by Dassault so far have gone to the French armed forces. To sustain production, the government has agreed to spend $1.1 billion on more Rafales over three years, even as it tries to pare budget deficits.
Finding customers will only get harder. As the Joint Strike Fighter enters service, U.S. manufacturers are set to increase their share of the $16 billion-a-year fighter aircraft market over the next decade from nearly 58 percent to more than 67 percent, according to forecasts by the Virginia-based Teal Group aerospace consultancy. Eurofighter and Russian manufacturers will get most of the rest, Teal predicts.
The longer the Rafale order book stays empty, the harder it will be to sell the plane, Teal analyst Richard Aboulafia says. "Customers like to see a home government that is determined to keep spending on buying and upgrading the aircraft" with the latest technology. Instead, he says, the Rafale is on budgetary life support. "That's the last thing you want customers to see."
The bottom line:France's decision to go it alone on its fighter program has cost the country $53 billion, with no export sales to offset the price.
Matlackis a Paris correspondent forBloomberg Businessweek.
23/01/2011 - SLOBODAN LEKIC (AP) - Chinese officials recently unveiled a new, high-tech stealth fighter that could pose a significant threat to American air superiority — and some of its technology, it turns out, may well have come from the U.S. itself.
Balkan military officials and other experts have told The Associated Press that in all probability the Chinese gleaned some of their technological know-how from an American F-117 Nighthawk that was shot down over Serbia in 1999.
Nighthawks were the world's first stealth fighters, planes that were very hard for radar to detect. But on March 27, 1999, during NATO's aerial bombing of Serbia in the Kosovo war, a Serbian anti-aircraft missile shot one of the Nighthawks down. The pilot ejected and was rescued.
It was the first time one of the much-touted "invisible" fighters had ever been hit. The Pentagon believed a combination of clever tactics and sheer luck had allowed a Soviet-built SA-3 missile to bring down the jet.
The wreckage was strewn over a wide area of flat farmlands, and civilians collected the parts — some the size of small cars — as souvenirs.
"At the time, our intelligence reports told of Chinese agents crisscrossing the region where the F-117 disintegrated, buying up parts of the plane from local farmers," says Adm. Davor Domazet-Loso, Croatia's military chief of staff during the Kosovo war.
"We believe the Chinese used those materials to gain an insight into secret stealth technologies ... and to reverse-engineer them," Domazet-Loso said in a telephone interview.
A senior Serbian military official confirmed that pieces of the wreckage were removed by souvenir collectors, and that some ended up "in the hands of foreign military attaches."
Efforts to get comment from China's defense ministry and the Pentagon were unsuccessful.
China's multi-role stealth fighter — known as the Chengdu J-20 — made its inaugural flight Jan. 11, revealing dramatic progress in the country's efforts to develop cutting-edge military technologies.
Although the twin-engine J-20 is at least eight or nine years from entering air force inventory, it could become a rival to America's top-of-the-line F-22 Raptor, the successor to the Nighthawk and the only stealth fighter currently in service.
China rolled out the J-20 just days before a visit to Beijing by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, leading some analysts to speculate that the timing was intended to demonstrate the growing might of China's armed forces.
Despite Chinese President Hu Jintao's high-profile visit to the United States this week, many in Washington see China as an economic threat to the U.S. and worry as well about Beijing's military might.
Parts of the downed F-117 wreckage — such as the left wing with US Air Force insignia, the cockpit canopy, ejection seat, pilot's helmet and radio — are exhibited at Belgrade's aviation museum.
"I don't know what happened to the rest of the plane," said Zoran Milicevic, deputy director of the museum. "A lot of delegations visited us in the past, including the Chinese, Russians and Americans ... but no one showed any interest in taking any part of the jet."
Zoran Kusovac, a Rome-based military consultant, said the regime of former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic routinely shared captured Western equipment with its Chinese and Russian allies.
"The destroyed F-117 topped that wish-list for both the Russians and Chinese," Milicevic said.
Russia's Sukhoi T-50 prototype stealth fighter made its maiden flight last year and is due to enter service in about four years. It is likely that the Russians also gleaned knowledge of stealth technology from the downed Nighthawk.
The F-117, developed in great secrecy in the 1970s, began service in 1983.
While not completely invisible to radar, its shape and radar-absorbent coating made detection extremely difficult. The radar cross-section was further reduced because the wings' leading and trailing edges were composed of nonmetallic honeycomb structures that do not reflect radar rays.
Kusovac said insight into this critical technology, and particularly the plane's secret radiation-absorbent exterior coating, would have significantly enhanced China's stealth know-how.
Alexander Huang of Taipei's Tamkang University said the J-20 represented a major step forward for China. He described Domazet-Loso's claim as "a logical assessment."
"There is no other stronger source for the origin of the J-20's stealthy technology," said Huang, an expert on China's air force. "The argument the Croatian chief-of-staff makes is legitimate and cannot be ruled out."
The Chinese are well-known perpetrators of industrial espionage in Western Europe and the United States, where the administration has also been increasingly aggressive in prosecuting cases of Chinese espionage.
Western diplomats have said China maintained an intelligence post in its Belgrade embassy during the Kosovo war. The building was mistakenly struck by U.S. bombers that May, killing three people inside.
"What that means is that the Serbs and Chinese would have been sharing their intelligence," said Alexander Neill, head of the Asia security program at the Royal United Services Institute, a defense think tank in London. "It's very likely that they shared the technology they recovered from the F-117, and it's very plausible that elements of the F-117 got to China."
Brazil is on the cusp of fulfilling its potential as a global player. The next U.S. president should rethink relations with this important country.
JUAN DE ONIS is a former correspondent for The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times who lives in Brazil. He is the author of The Green Cathedral: Sustainable Development of Amazonia.
Brazil's ascendance is not the result of lucky breaks. Although global factors, such as rising commodity prices and easy access to foreign capital, have helped, there has been no tropical alchemy or voodoo economics. The secret of Brazil's current success lies in the continuity of its sound economic and political management. Over the past five years, under the leadership of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (known as Lula), Brazil has continued the market-friendly economic policies begun by previous governments that tamed inflation and stimulated private investment.After decades of stop-and-start growth and political disorder, Brazil today seems poised to finally fulfill its long-unrealized potential as a global player.
The key features of Brazil's awakening are widely recognized: expanded exports, oil discoveries, financial stability, low inflation, growing foreign and domestic investment, booming consumer demand, social assistance focused on the neediest, and democratic political cohesion. Brazil's diverse economy is now founded on strong sectors in oil, mining, agriculture, and, more recently, biofuels -- all of which have benefited from a combination of technological advancements and strong incentives for private investment. The country now boasts a GDP of $1.58 trillion, which ranks in the top ten worldwide.
Still, Brazil remains a work in progress. Continued stability and future growth will require avoiding the mistakes of the past while finding new solutions to the problems that remain. These include rampant corruption, stalled tax and labor reforms, low levels of domestic saving, inadequate achievements in public education, and not enough highly skilled labor. Successfully resolving such issues would allow Brazil's rise to continue, and Brazil -- long viewed as a peripheral country -- would finally become a global player.