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24th Jun 2021

Libya strikes showcase French warplane

  • Dassault spokesman: 'the Rafale is the only aircraft in the world which has an omnirole - it can do air combat, bombardment, observation' (Photo: French)

Many commentators believe the Libya air strikes are a pre-election advert for President Nicolas Sarkozy. Some believe they are also an advert for France's badly-selling Rafale jet fighter.

Several EU diplomats and even one foreign minister speaking off the record in Brussels in the run-up to the Libya campaign pointed to next year's French presidential elections as a big reason for Sarkozy's enthusiasm to take on Libyan dictator Colonel Gaddafi.

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But looking in detail at French operations in Libya, military analysts have also said that France is using the war to promote its badly-selling €60-million-per-unit Rafale fighter.

Rafale jets fired the symbolic first shot against Gaddafi at 17.45 Libyan time on 19 March, destroying four tanks on the outskirts of Benghazi. The strike took place three hours before the US and UK began bombarding Gaddafi anti-aircraft bases, with the French ministry of defence swiftly posting a set of Rafale pictures on its website.

David Cenciotti, an Italian jet-fighter-pilot-turned-analyst, told EUobserver that the Rafale strikes were highly irregular because in a normal operation the anti-air-defence bombardment would have come first.

"The French intervention is, among other things, aimed at putting the Rafale under the spotlight," he said. "For sure, the French air force was confident that Benghazi was free of SAM [surface-to-air-missile] sites, but I think it was mainly a demo."

The Rafale fighter already got its 'battle proven' stamp in Afghanistan in 2007 and will have little chance to show off in air-to-air combat in Libya: the only Gaddafi plane it destroyed so far was an old Yugoslav-made Galeb hit while on the ground.

Jean-Pierre Maulny, the co-director of the Paris-based Institute for Strategic and International Relations (Iris), explained that Libya is better in promotional terms than Afghanistan, however.

"Nobody speaks about the Rafale in Afghanistan because people don't understand the Afghanistan conflict and its objectives so well. In Libya it's very clear - we are trying to stop a dictator from killing his people. Positive French public opinion, the way the French press is reporting on this war, it all creates a certain reaction abroad," he said.

"The decision to make the first strike was a political one, not a tactical one," he added. "Promoting the Rafale is not a primary objective, but it is a secondary effect."

For his part, Paul Holtum, an expert at the Swedish arms-control NGO Sipri, added: "I understand that the 'marketing possibilities' have also been discussed with regard to a Swedish decision on whether to send the Gripen for action over Libya ... However, the air campaign might be of more interest with regard to markets for advanced missiles and guided bombs rather than combat aircraft."

Rafale manufacturer, the Paris-based Dassault Aviation, has so far sold almost 300 of the planes to the French military but not a single one to another country.

Dassault is in talks to sell 60 to anti-Gaddafi coalition partner the United Arab Emirates and 36 to Brazil. Up until late February, it was in talks to sell 14 to Gaddafi himself.

Company spokesman Stephane Fort told this website that the Cenciotti theory is "propaganda not reality." He said the Rafale was used to hit Gaddafi's tanks because it was right for the job: "The Rafale is the only aircraft in the world which has an omnirole - it can do air combat, bombardment, observation. All this in one flight, with one pilot in one plane."

French diplomats and members of the French military establishment also rejected the theory.

The former chief of the French air force, General Jean Rannou, told EUobserver: "It was not in any way a communications mission. Benghazi was hemmed in by Gaddafi tanks. If we hadn't struck quickly on Saturday, they would have entered the city and it would have been too late."

He added: "Gaddafi's air defences were not so dangerous, so the risk we took was not big."

As for Sarkozy's re-election, French contacts pointed out that Libya is "a gamble" because if the war turns ugly it could harm him in the polls.

Libya in any case did nothing for his centre-right UMP party in local elections on Sunday (27 March), when the opposition Socialist party stormed to victory on 36 percent.

"This election was dominated by worries about the economic situation in France. But I think international issues, foreign policy will be a bigger factor in the presidential elections next year," the Iris think-tank's Maulny said.

Correction: This story was corrected at 5pm Brussels time on 29 March. The original text said the Galeb was a Russian-made plane, but in fact it was Yugoslav-made

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