France warns of end of Rafale fighter jet production

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France warned Wednesday that defence giant Dassault would halt production of its Rafale multirole fighter jet if it remains unable to sell any abroad.

"If Dassault doesn't sell any Rafales abroad, the production line... will be stopped" once France has received the 180 aircraft it has ordered, Defence Minister Gerard Longuet told a small group of journalists including AFP.

France considers the twin-motor delta-wing Rafale a state of the art warplane but has struggled to find any foreign buyers to support the project that has so far cost over 40 billion euros (53 billion dollars).

Longuet said maintenance arrangements would continue for all completed aircraft and that French Rafale orders alone would keep the production line going until 2018 "at least".

Then "it will be over for the manufacturer, not for the user," he said of the plane that has been deployed in NATO operations in Afghanistan and Libya

It is mainly built by Dasault, electronics company Thales and motor manufacturer Snecma, part of the Safran group, but a total of over 1,500 French companies are involved in the programme.

Longuet insisted that the Rafale remained in competition with European manufacturer EADS' Eurofighter Typhoon for a large Indian contract and that "we are in tough negotiations with the United Arab Emirates".

However, the UAE, which was said to be in final talks with France to buy 60 Rafales, said last month that the French offer was unworkable and uncompetitive.

A US cable leaked by Wikileaks in 2010 quoted King Hamad of Bahrain as mocking the Rafale as "yesterday's technology".

Switzerland in November became the latest country to choose another fighter over the Rafale, opting for the Swedish-made Saab Gripen to replace its ageing fleet.

The Rafale and Typhoon are in the final stage of a massive duel to meet India's 126-unit medium multi-role combat aircraft requirement. Final bids were opened earlier last month, with a decision possible within weeks.

Asked why Dassault was having trouble selling the plane abroad, Longuet said the multirole jet was "more expensive than American planes which are produced in much greater numbers."

"While we order 200 Rafales for a 10-15 year programme, the Americans make 3,000 aircraft," he said.

"However, for top level missions of high military value, the Rafale is undeniably well-positioned."

Development of the Rafale began in the 1980s, with a first prototype built in 1991. The first plane for delivery to the French military rolled off the production line in 1998.

© 2011 AFP

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