PARIS – France has ordered 42 Rafale fighter jets from Dassault Aviation worth more than 5 billion euros ($5.5 billion), the defense ministry announced Friday.
The purchase comes as French lawmakers express concerns about the Franco-German project to develop a successor to the Rafale. According to the French Senate Defense Committee, the so-called Future Combat Air System is not expected to enter service until 2045 or 2050.
The French defense procurement agency has informed Dassault Aviation as well as equipment suppliers Thales, Safran and MBDA of the contract for the aircraft's fifth production phase, the ministry said.
“This is excellent news for our sovereignty and security, as well as for our armed forces, which will benefit from additional Rafales with modernized operational capabilities,” Army 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 service 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 include Egypt, India, the United Arab Emirates and Indonesia. In addition, Greece and Croatia each purchased 12 used Rafales from the French Air Force.
The new aircraft destined for the Aerospace Forces are single-seat versions conforming to the F4 production standard, the development of which began in 2018. The standard focuses on connectivity and includes MBDA's Mica medium-range air-to-air aircraft. Air missile as well as an upgrade of the Spectra self-defense system developed by Thales. Safran supplies the fighter's M88 afterburner turbofan engine.
According to the ministry, the jets will be converted to the F5 standard in the 2030s. The Senate has called on Dassault Aviation to begin upgrading as early as 2024 due to uncertainty over the future combat air system – which could include a loyal wingman UAV based on Europe's nEUROn combat drone program. The FCAS could cost two to three times as much as a Rafale, while exports would require approval from the German partner, senators said in a November report.
Until FCAS is operational, France needs a world-class fighter to ensure the airborne component of its nuclear deterrent, the defense committee said.
Considered a 4.5 generation fighter, similar to the Eurofighter Typhoon and Saab's Gripen, the Rafale features stealth technology, the ability to reach supersonic speeds without the use of afterburners and to engage in combat beyond visual range.
Dassault Aviation said existing Rafale orders, including the new contract, mean the jet's production line will be active for the next 10 years.
The company received orders for 60 Rafales in 2023, including 42 for France and 18 for Indonesia, compared with 92 export orders in 2022, according to financial data released separately on Friday. Deliveries last year totaled 13 aircraft, missing the target of 15 – ultimately one fewer fighter aircraft than in 2022. The company's backlog for the Rafale rose to 211 at the end of December, of which 141 were for export; its deficit was 164 at the end of 2022.
The latest agreement is the first major expenditure under France's 2024-2030 military budget law and will support more than 7,000 jobs in more than 400 companies, the ministry said.
Rudy Ruitenberg is Europe correspondent for Defense News. He began his career at Bloomberg News and has experience covering technology, commodities markets and politics.