PARIS — France has ordered 42 Rafale fighter jets from Dassault Aviation in a deal worth more than €5 billion (U.S. $5.5 billion), the Armed Forces Ministry announced Friday.
The purchase comes as French lawmakers express concerns about the Franco-German project to develop a successor to the Rafale. The Future Combat Air System, as it’s known, isn’t expected to enter service before 2045 or 2050, according to the French Senate’s defense committee.
The French defense procurement agency notified Dassault Aviation as well as equipment suppliers Thales, Safran and MBDA of the contract for the fifth production phase of the aircraft, the ministry said.
“This is excellent news for our sovereignty and security, and for our armed forces, which will benefit from additional Rafales with modernized operational capabilities,” Armed Forces Minister Sébastien Lecornu said in a statement.
The Rafale entered service with the French Navy in 2004 and the French Air Force in 2006, and has seen action in Afghanistan, Libya, Mali, Iraq and Syria. The latest contract brings the total number of Rafales ordered by France to 234, including a special order in 2021 for 12 fighters to replace aircraft transferred to Greece.
Export orders for the Rafale currently stand at 261 new aircraft; customers including Egypt, India, the United Arab Emirates and Indonesia. In addition, Greece and Croatia have each bought 12 secondhand Rafales from the French Air Force.
The new aircraft, meant for the Air and Space Force, will be one-seater versions and fitted to the F4 production standard, for which development started in 2018. The standard is focused on connectivity and includes MBDA’s Mica medium-range air-to-air missile as well as an upgrade of the Spectra self-defense system developed by Thales. Safran supplies the fighter’s M88 afterburning turbofan engine.
The jets are to received upgrades to the F5 standard in the 2030s, according to the ministry. The Senate has called for Dassault Aviation to start work on the upgrade — which might include a loyal wingman UAV based on the European nEUROn combat drone program — as early as 2024 due to the uncertainty around the Future Combat Air System. The FCAS could cost two to three times as much as a Rafale, while exports would be subject to approval by the German partner, senators said in a November report.
Until FCAS becomes operational, France will need a top-notch fighter to ensure the airborne component of its nuclear deterrent, the defense committee said.
The Rafale is considered a 4.5-generation fighter, similar to the Eurofighter Typhoon and Saab’s Gripen, and includes stealth technology, the ability to reach supersonic speed without the use of afterburners, engage in combat beyond visual range.
Dassault Aviation said existing Rafale orders, including the new contract, means the jet’s production line will be active for the next 10 years.
The company received orders for 60 Rafales in 2023, including the 42 for France and 18 for Indonesia, compared with 92 export orders in 2022, according to financials released separately on Friday. Deliveries last year amounted to 13 aircraft, missing the goal of 15 — ultimately one less fighter than it delivered in 2022. The company’s backlog for the Rafale increased to 211 at the end of December, including 141 for export; its backlog at the end of 2022 was 164.
The latest deal is the first major expenditure under France’s 2024-2030 military budget law, and will support more than 7,000 jobs across more than 400 companies, the ministry said.
Rudy Ruitenberg is a Europe correspondent for Defense News. He started his career at Bloomberg News and has experience reporting on technology, commodity markets and politics.