Last January, following François Hollande’s visit to India, you felt that you could sign the final contract for 36 Rafale “within 4 weeks”. Do you finally see the end of the tunnel?
Significant progress has been made, and I feel a real desire to succeed, possibly in the coming weeks. But India remains India: the government wants to be sure, before signing, that the supplier has given everything it can give. I am confident, because the Indian Air Force has a long history with Dassault: the first Hurricanes were delivered in 1953! We can expect one or two contracts this year, including India, even if time flies.
American competitors are in the process of sieging New Delhi, with proposals for assembly lines of F-16 or F-18 in India. Is this a credible danger?
Indeed, we have all the lobbies against us: the Russians, the British, the Swedes and, of course, the Americans. Behind the 36 aircraft of the contract that we are negotiating, all the candidates promise assembly sites to win the next 90. But to offer an F-16 plant to India when you just sold the same aircraft to Pakistan does not seem very serious to me. The United States has already won contracts with the Air Force, for transport planes in particular. If India signs for 36 Rafale, we will be in a good position to supply, if New Delhi confirms its need for 126 combat aircraft, the next 90.
And the negotiation with the United Arab Emirates?
I am very confident that this will happen, but when? The need exists, as the Mirage 2000-9s fly a lot, but our schedule will be our customer’s.
The F-35 is “not a good plane”
Can Canada really give up the F-35 and choose the Rafale?
For us, Canada is not strictly speaking a prospect, but an opportunity. This country, a great ally of the United States, has done serious and neutral work on the F-35. The Canadian audit clearly says it’s not a good plane. If the Prime Minister, Mr. Trudeau, follows this logic and abandons the F-35, we would be candidates with the Rafale. But that doesn’t mean we would automatically win. We would have to fight other American planes anyway. We should be sure that we are not there to play hares …
How can Dassault exist in the face of the American steamroller, embodied by the more than 2,000 orders of Lockheed Martin’s F-35?
In the 1970s, the US Air Force asked the Rand Corporation how they make such good planes with so little money. The answer is simple: we are neither the biggest nor the strongest, but we have kept the agility and efficiency of the origins. We made the Rafale alone, one of the best aircraft in the world and the only truly multi-role. The Americans, with monumental resources, are unable to do the same with the F-35, which I see is not up to par. Many countries are realizing the American strategy: you contribute to NATO, and the industrial return passes entirely to the United States. The Europeans on board the F-35 are working on the program, admitted as subcontractors. It is a vicious circle: the United States does not transfer technology, and you find yourself dependent on them, because you no longer have the technological means to develop your own materials. You can therefore no longer be present the next time.
“To do what the Rafale does, the Americans need three aircraft”
In the combat drone segment, can Europe be at the technological level of the Americans?
We are capable of being as good or even better than the Americans. On combat drones, we are at their level. We will never be able to have such high budgets in our domestic market, but the announcement of a Franco-British investment of two billion euros in the FCAS combat drone program is a step in the right direction. On closer inspection, the Americans are very strong, they have a lot of money, but I see that they only know how to produce specialized aircraft. To do what the Rafale does, they will need three aircraft: the F-22, the F-35, and the A-10 ground attack aircraft or its replacement.
But will you not sooner or later have a critical size problem facing your competitors on the other side of the Atlantic?
The Boeing and Lockheed Martins are powerful, but their power is linked more to American power than to that of their company. And Dassault should not be reduced to aviation alone, even if it remains the flagship of the group. There is also Dassault Systèmes, the world leader in software and 3D design. And we are the benchmark industrial shareholder of Thales, a group with a turnover of 14 billion euros. The state is also in the capital, of which act, but we are probably there for longer.
“The Falcon 5X will be a good plane”
Do you regret the € 1.5 billion investment in two new Falcon business jets, the 5X and the 8X, as the business aviation market remains depressed?
There is nothing to regret: if you don’t make a new product, you will disappear. There is currently a real slowdown in the civilian market. We’ll have to be there when he leaves.
The development setbacks for Safran’s new Silvercrest engine resulted in the Falcon 5X being delayed by two years. Do you blame Safran?
These are the vagaries of aeronautics. Safran is rediscovering a number of things, which is handicapping us. But we’ll help them get there. And the 5X will be a good plane. Gulfstream, which achieved one of the greatest successes in business aviation with the G650, had crashed a prototype. All in all, I prefer my engine problems.
“Exporting the Rafale was the building block we were missing”
When we mentioned Dassault some time ago, some spoke of a group on a drip of public money. You are now the favorite company of the French in the Randstad ranking. Has the Rafale’s dual export order in 2014 (24 in Egypt and 24 in Qatar) changed the group’s image to this point?
We have always been a company that inspires dreams: a family group, which pays well, where life is good, with a strong culture and an obsession with innovation. Everyone dreams of joining Dassault! The export of the Rafale was the brick that was missing to be fully recognized. But this is only the logical continuation of the export successes of the Mirage III or Mirage 2000. Because, contrary to what some people think they know, Dassault is a structurally exporting company: we sell three quarters of our devices internationally. In the 60s and 90s, it was mostly military aircraft. Since the 2000s, it has mainly been business jets. For the coming years, a rebalancing seems to be taking shape.
You have just celebrated with great pomp the 100 years of the group with a show under the nave of the Grand Palais. What did Serge Dassault think of it?
Despite his repeated requests, the content of the show was kept from him until the end. He was really touched. For everyone, this is history. For him, it’s 90 years of his life.
Interview by Vincent Lamigeon