:: February 2003 Newsletter ::


Dear Fellow Forensics Fans,

One of the least charming aspects of life in Washington is that everyone’s a self-proclaimed foreign policy expert. From the time you get some meaningless degree (both of mine are completely “liberal arts”) to the time you land some job that has any political content whatsoever (analyst at a pseudo-think tank, like Teal Group), you think you know better than anyone else, and arrogantly foist your unwanted opinion on those foolish enough to politely listen. I, of course, have been and continue to be part of the problem. I apologize in advance for the next nine paragraphs.

It’s common knowledge that politics play a big role in arms sales. I’ve written before about the relationship between power status and fighter exports. To reiterate a few of the reasons for buying from the big guy: more frequent upgrades, forces circling the globe to provide back-up, better logistics and training, improved doctrine, and smoother connectivity to networks and external data sources (satellites, AWACS, JSTARS, etc). Yet since September 11, the choice is no longer between buying a fighter from a superpower and a medium power; the disparity has grown, and it now comes down to buying a plane from a hyperpower or from a shut-in.

I should point out that I don’t necessarily agree with all US foreign policy, or with the plan to grow the US defense budget to $500 billion by FY 2009. It doesn’t matter. One likely unintended consequence of the US’s increasingly active posture is greater fighter export market dominance.

Recent US foreign policy terminology is reminiscent of fighter sales talk. “America’s War Train Is Leaving The Station” announced a recent New York Times headline. As with the F-35/JSF signup drive, the message is clear: join us or be marginalized. As with JSF, countries have responded. Most notably there was the recent letter from eight nations supporting Bush’s stand on Iraq. It was signed by Britain, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Portugal, and Spain. Let’s see—we’ve got three F-35 JSF partners, five current US fighter customers, and one upcoming fighter competition.

It’s not so much that fighter sales have been politicized; it’s more that politics have been fighter sale-ized. Yes, that’s a really silly phrase, but look at Poland’s recent F-16 decision. The US pulled out all stops, including an unprecedented government-backed financing package. The probable motive: to secure Poland as a US/NATO partner, rather than as a France/Germany/EU partner. Just after the sale, SecDef Rumsfeld spoke of the “Old Europe” (i.e., France, Germany, and anyone else who didn’t agree with US policy) and “New Europe” (the new pro-US NATO and NATO hopeful countries). The US Government’s objective wasn’t merely to sell Poland 48 planes; rather, those planes served a broader strategic goal.

Therefore, the great misfortune for Rafale and Eurofighter is that they are produced and marketed by France and Germany, or, as the Bush crowd calls them in their off-duty moments, the Axis of Weasel. It’s hard to sell fighters when your home country employs them, primarily, to flatten out stubborn tarmac bumps through strategic parking.

What’s the rest of the world to do? It’s a curious mix. Saab has started to emphasize Gripen’s US industrial content and aims to boost it. This ethnographic identity crisis doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but looking at those weird yet compelling Ikea ads it’s obvious that the Swedes know something about marketing that we don’t. Besides, Sweden has always been more self-reliant than pacifist. France and Dassault are sending mixed signals—France is reluctant to join the war, but the carrier Charles de Gaulle is in the region, flying Rafales. This is either half-hearted military cooperation, or half-hearted marketing, or both. On the positive side, Dassault will always have a market selling to countries that don’t want to depend on a single weapons source. Dassault’s man in India, for instance, has his work cut out for him.

Britain, content to play Gilligan to the US’s Skipper, would be able to use its co-power status to promote Eurofighter exports, but only if it decides that it really is committed to the new plane, and not just waiting to jump ship for the F-35. Intriguingly, the Eurofighter Tranche 2/3 development delays are largely Britain’s problem, not Germany’s. This implies that the problem isn’t cash; it’s uncertainty about future priorities. Italy, another joint Eurofighter/F-35 partner, seems to be playing a similar game.

Related issue: what do France and Germany really need, weapons-wise? Germany’s determined passive-aggressive pacifism clearly precludes them from large-scale foreign interventions like the current Iraq crisis. So how could they possibly be serious about procuring 60 strategic airlifters for large-scale foreign interventions? France, at least, has its troublesome ex-colonies to worry about. What is the Schroeder Government thinking?

To bring this back in a neat circle, this foreign policy impact on domestic requirements comes back to affect international sales. Take Rafale. I had assumed this rather neat-looking aircraft had its Mark 2/3 upgrade mapped out and paid for, and therefore stood a good chance, at least in the remaining pre-JSF fighter competitions. But according to a January 14 article in La Tribune, this is far from a done deal. According to the article’s sources, France doesn’t need a growth Rafale for another 15 years, and developing it for just a few export possibilities, like Singapore, looks unlikely. This situation certainly reflects France’s current strategic posture—as with Germany and the A400M, they look determined to avoid scenarios where they might actually need a plane in this class.

Not coincidentally, this supplement contains our annual Fighter Market Overview. It also has updates of the F-16, 777, A330, B-1, and the Special Mission Aircraft Overview. In March, we’ll update the Airbus narrowbodies, the Harrier, CN-235/C-295, and Dauphin. As always, call with requests.

Yours, ‘Til The F-35s Find Osama,

Richard Aboulafia
(703) 385-1992 ext. 103 (office)


© Richard Aboulafia 1997-2006, All rights reserved.
  ~  Last updated on January 08, 2006