France soothes nerves over Dassault jets after Brazil setback

Reuters

* Rafale jet deemed too expensive, yet to find foreign buyer

* Defence Minister expects results in India, Gulf

* Dassault in exclusive talks with India for 126 jets

By John Irish

PARIS, Dec 19 (Reuters) - France's defence minister played down another sales failure for the Dassault-made Rafale fighter jet in Brazil, saying he was confident there would soon be better news from tenders in India and Gulf Arab countries.

Built by Dassault Aviation, the Rafale has still not found a foreign buyer for its multi-role jet, billed to be one of the most effective and sophisticated fighter jets in the world, but also one of the most expensive.

Shares in the company fell around 4 percent on Thursday after Brazil's decision to award a $4.5 billion contract for 36 jets to Saab (AB SAABb.ST), a surprise coup for Sweden.

France had come close to sealing a deal with Brazil in 2011, with Dassault promising to transfer technology for the new jet in a bid to get an edge over the competition, but the Brazilian government announced it would delay its decision due to the escalating economic crisis.

"This isn't a failure. It's a disappointment on a target that wasn't a priority," Jean-Yves Le Drian told Europe 1 radio, playing down the loss. "Brazil was not the priority target for the Rafale. We have more important targets in India and the Gulf (Arab states)."

French President Francois Hollande had travelled to the Latin American oil producer on Dec. 12 to push the deal.

Dassault has been in exclusive negotiations with the Indian government for more than a year to sell 126 planes. An Indian air force official said at the end of October it hoped to conclude the deal by March 2014.

"Brazil's choice was logical," a Paris-based trader said. "It was an economic choice to pick the Swedish plane.

"France needs to understand that the Rafale is too expensive and that the quality of the equipment is not taken into consideration in the current decision making process. With this failure, the India contract becomes crucial for Dassault."

INDIA CRUCIAL FOR DASSAULT

Under a five-year defence plan unveiled in October, the French military will slow the pace at which it takes delivery of Rafale jets from Dassault, taking just 26 over the next years instead of the planned 11 a year.

The French government's decision to slow the production line may push Dassault to review the cost of the plane - threatening to raise costs for the defence budget.

"We have good reason to think that in India and the Gulf (Arab states) there will be results," Le Drian said.

The aircraft has received a great deal more interest since it was deployed in the NATO mission in Libya in 2011, its first ever combat operation, and earlier this year when France intervened to oust Islamist rebels in Mali.

France's stance on Syria and a tough line over Iran's nuclear programme, has helped its relationship with the hydrocarbons-rich Gulf Arab states prosper, already resulting in multi-billion dollar defence contracts this year.

Officials say they are optimistic on securing a large deal to deliver anti-aircraft defence missiles to Riyadh, where Hollande will travel at the end of December, but also the sale of Rafales to neighbouring Qatar.

Doha wants to replace its fleet of 12 Mirage fighter jets, possibly buying 24 to 36 units. It is looking at the Rafale, the BAE Systems-backed Eurofighter Typhoon and various Boeing-made planes.

Dassault and BAE are also in a tight race to win a deal for 60 aircraft to replace the United Arab Emirates' Mirage fleet.

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