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The French Connection

Selling arms to all the wrong people.

11:00 PM, Mar 4, 2008 • By REUBEN F. JOHNSON
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The consequence of this fiasco is that Morocco will buy one frigate, but will opt for a purchase of the Lockheed Martin F-16 instead of the Rafale. "This is more or less the legacy of the DGA to date," commented one French industry observer. "There are frigates being sold everywhere, but no fighters." "One frigate has managed to shoot down 18 Rafales," added one of the editors of France's Libération newspaper.

The loss is particularly annoying to Dassault, which had previously been part of an industry team program to modernize the Moroccan Mirage F1 fleet. This contract had been thought to put the French firm in the prime position to make a Rafale sale.

At the time, this proverbial "last straw" prompted French president Nicolas Sarkozy to completely reorganize France's defense export administration. Le Figaro reported late last year that a new high-level arms export task force would now oversee the DGA's activity, and would be headed by the president himself plus the prime minister, the ministers of defense, foreign affairs, and finance, and the commander-in-chief of the army.

All of which sounded like a great idea at the time except that it appears to have had no positive effect.

Bruno Berthet, assistant director for international development at the French Defense Ministry, announced this week that despite negative reporting on this issue for several months, DGA intends to sign a provisional deal that would allow Pakistan to obtain MICA air-to-air missiles (AAM) from France's MBDA and the RC400 radar from Thales, the French defense electronics conglomerate.

"The talks are on the right track, and there are diplomatic comings and goings between the two countries," Berthet told the Associated Press earlier in the week, but added that it was too early to say when a memorandum of understanding might be signed. The MICA AAMs and Thales radars would equip the joint Sino-Pakistan JF-17/FC-1 fighter that is being built by the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex and China's Chengdu Aircraft Design Institute.

"If you are serious about continuing to do defense business in India," said one French industry representative, "then this deal makes no sense. The MICA missiles are the same as on the Dassault Mirage 2000 aircraft that have previously been sold to India, and the RC400 radar is the same as the RDY-3 model design that Dassault have proposed to install in the Indian Mirages as part of an upgrade program. DGA are essentially selling the Pakistanis--at a time of heightened instability in that country--the same radar and missile technology that has already been sold to India. This will compromise a good portion of the IAF's fighter force."

If the contract with Pakistan is signed it may irreparably damage Dassault's chances to successfully bid the Rafale for India's current fighter aircraft contract competition. This program, called the M-MRCA (Medium-Multirole Combat Aircraft) procurement, is projected to add up to 200 or more aircraft by the time the initial contract and follow-on sales are tallied up--making it the biggest arms export deal in more than three decades. "This is a high opportunity cost--if you are French industry--just to sell some accessory items to the Pakistani Air Force," commented one industry insider.

Diplomatically, the fallout could be even worse. The JF-17/FC-1 is a program in which Pakistan and China have always shared technology acquired by one partner with the other. Chinese industry would be almost certain to acquire this technology. This not only gives Beijing a path to circumvent the EU arms embargo that has been in place since the suppression of the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations, but it also spells bad news for Taiwan.

The Taiwan Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF) operates 60 Dassault Mirage 2000-5 fighters that are equipped with the same MICA AAM (Taiwan purchased almost a thousand units of this weapon) and the Thales RDY radar. Thus, the signing of this deal between France and Pakistan would essentially make these ROCAF Mirages useless in any defense of the island nation by an attack from the mainland. This is potentially another loss for Dassault in that Taiwan is also in the market for more fighters. If the DGA sabotage the ROCAF Mirage fleet with this Pakistan program then Taipei will more than likely opt to purchase more of the Lockheed Martin F-16s that they also operate.