ABU DHABI // A top official of Dassault Aviation, the French maker of the Rafale and Mirage fighter jets, has expressed optimism about the prospects of selling the Rafale to the UAE, and denied that the talks are taking longer than expected.
Eric Trappier, the executive vice president of Dassault, also spoke of the broad contours of the company's relationship with the UAE, saying it included upgrading the country's existing Mirage fleet and developing joint ventures with Emirati companies to help promote the local defence industry.
The UAE first indicated in 2008 that it was interested in the Rafale as a possible replacement for the Mirage, but little progress has been reported on the deal so far.
Reports have also emerged that the UAE had sought technical information on the F/A-18 Super Hornet, a direct competitor to the Rafale. However the US company Boeing, which makes the F/A-18, has denied receiving any such request.
Nearly half the UAE's fighter fleet is made up of the French Mirage 2000 and the more advanced Mirage 2000-9, or Dash 9. There are 60 Mirages in service and almost 80 F-16s.
The Mirage 2000-9 was a significant collaboration between the UAE and Dassault, said Mr Trappier. "Our first duty is to support the UAE Air Force. The programme is going well, and we are continuing to upgrade the Mirage," he said.
The UAE awarded Dassault a contract on Tuesday to upgrade the armaments and software on the country's Mirage fleet in a deal worth Dh112 million.
Before acquiring the existing Mirage fleet, the UAE operated French Mirage 3 fighters. "We hope that Rafale could be the next step," Mr Trappier said.
But he said his company would continue upgrading the UAE Mirages as the Air Force asked for more improvements.
The Mirage 2000-9 incorporates many of the requirements requested by the UAE military. But "as [in] any programme for a fighter in the world, step by step there are new requests and new requirements", he said.
While talks on the Rafale continue, the company is working with the local Emirati defence sector on developing technology, education and manufacturing bases that can support the Rafale, he said.
The UAE confirmed that the military's technical committees are studying the Rafale, but Maj Gen Obeid al Ketbi said this did not indicate the UAE was necessarily leaning towards purchasing it. He also did not say if the Rafale was facing any competition to replace the Mirage.
Gen al Ketbi is the spokesman for the International Defence Exhibition (Idex), which ends today.
Mr Trappier declined to say when the deal could be concluded, saying the decision rests with the Government.
"I am optimistic," he said. "I will not tell you that this could be signed today, tomorrow, or after tomorrow. The decision is mainly in the hands of the UAE Air Force and the Government of the UAE."
He added that "we've had this very long relationship … with the UAE. We are very optimistic because the next logical step is the Rafale.
He said his company would "try to finalise a programme with all the annexes, technical, logistics, training, offsets, the partnerships with some companies".
Other Gulf countries besides the UAE have expressed interest in the Rafale, but Saudi Arabia was not one of them, said Mr Trappier.
He said that the deal was not taking longer than expected, noting that Mirage negotiations had taken a similar amount of time.
"I think it's a big contract and they are happy with the Mirage," he said. "There is no hurry. If there is a hurry, we are also ready, but it is up to the UAE authorities … to decide when and how."
He said the UAE had asked for advancements to the standard Rafale, including improvements to software and an antenna. The French government, also a Dassault client, has also asked for some changes.
But he did not cite a price estimate for those changes, whose costs were rumoured to be among the reasons why the deal has been delayed. He said the improvements sought by the UAE or France would be paid by the country requesting them.
Mr Trappier did deny that the cost of the changes had led to a delay, saying it was simply a large programme that needed time.
He said the UAE was right to think about the Rafale's capabilities in terms of its long-term needs, and was always looking to the future.
"There are some discussions to improve the basic aircraft into what could be the Rafale of the year 2020, 2025, 2030," he said.