French War on Mali to Clinch Warplane Mega Deal

France’s claim of combating terrorism in Mali does not add up. Re-conquest of this former French colony and control of rich natural resources in West Africa are some of the more plausible reasons for this criminal offensive that began on 11 January.

Yet another plausible reason is to showcase the Rafale, France’s new fighter-bomber.

The Rafale has spearheaded the French war on Mali and has been hailed by French President Francois Hollande for its successful air strikes against the impoverished desert African country. Four weeks after the French offensive began in Mali, Hollande flew to India last week in a bid to finalize what is reputedly the biggest military aviation deal in history, centered on the Rafale.

In other words, the whole war may have been staged to showcase the Rafale with the precise purpose of sealing a deal worth $12-14 billion with India and to fend off a rival tender from Britain’s state-of-the-art Typhoon.

Here’s the background.

Another week, another UN Security Council member comes to India to flog weapons of mass destruction. Just as tensions are boiling between nuclear-powered India and Pakistan over the incendiary Kashmir dispute – soldiers have been killed on both sides in cross-border firefights in recent weeks – along come the leaders of France and Britain to push multi-billion-dollar weapons sales.

Last week, it was French President Francois Hollande who led a delegation of four government ministers and some 60 industrial chiefs to India.

Arriving on 14 February and greeted by Indian Premier Manmohan Singh, French English-language broadcaster France 24 reported the importance of Hollande’s purpose in no uncertain terms: “The two-day visit will be dominated by trade issues, including a $12-billion contract for Rafale fighter jets, dubbed ‘the deal of the century’ in France.”

That deal – still to be finalized, perhaps next year – involves the sale of 126 French-made Rafale fighter-bombers and a potential follow-up of 63 more. It is reckoned to be the biggest-ever military aviation contract between two countries. The bombers are designed to deliver nuclear warheads – a feature that no doubt lends a selling edge on the Indian sub-continent.

This week, however, it was British Prime Minister David Cameron’s turn. Cameron flew to India for a three-day visit to shore up the “special relationship” with Britain’s former colony and past imperial “jewel in the crown.” It was Britain’s biggest overseas trade delegation, according to spokesmen in Downing Street. Accompanying Cameron were four government ministers, nine parliamentarians and representatives of over 100 British industries and businesses, including British Aerospace.

The latter company is particularly relevant since the main objective for Cameron was to dissuade India from finalizing the French fighter jet deal and to award the contract instead to the British-made Eurofighter Typhoon.

“PM in last-ditch bid for India fighter deal,” headlined the Financial Times, which added that Cameron was trying to snatch the contract “from under the nose of French President Francoise Hollande.”

The irony is a little hard to take of UN Security Council members engaged in a dog fight to fuel an arms race between India and Pakistan – the two states, both nuclear powers, have fought four wars since their foundation in 1947. The irony of Britain’s nefarious role is especially bitter. It was Britain’s malevolent partition of India that created the long-running dispute between newly formed India and Pakistan over the mainly Muslim territory of Kashmir. Three of the four wars fought by India and Pakistan have been over Kashmir – that is, as a result of British imperialist meddling. And now Britain is seeking to make billions of dollars from the bellicose tensions that it bequeathed to the region.

To call this a cynical business is a gross understatement. As the adage goes: war sells, war is good for business. And both France and Britain in recent years have done their utmost in pushing wars across the Middle East and North Africa, which in turn have helped push up sales of their state-of-the-art warplanes. The latest sales promo is France’s war on Mali – but more on that later.

The British-French rivalry for the Indian fighter jet bonanza can be traced to NATO’s war on Libya during 2011, which culminated in the overthrow and murder of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. On 17 March 2011, the UN Security Council voted a resolution to set up a no-fly zone in Libya, ostensibly under the pretext of “responsibility to protect” civilians in an apparent uprising by militants in the east against the government of Tripoli. Two days later, on 19 March, the no-fly zone quickly turned into a seven-month aerial bombing campaign by NATO against Gaddafi forces. Many legal experts opine that the NATO bombardment of Libya, which was instrumental in the overthrow of the Libyan government, was not mandated by the UNSC Resolution 1973. That is, NATO acted illegally.

The two NATO powers that led the bombing onslaught in Libya – involving more than 10,000 air sorties – were France and Britain. The air war was a showcase for the new Rafale, built by French company Dassault, as well as British Aerospace’s Typhoon. Indeed, it was Rafale fighter jets that first opened NATO fire on Gaddafi forces outside Benghazi.

Before NATO’s bombing spectacle in Libya got underway, the Rafale and Typhoon had already been short-listed by India from out of six tenders for the record $12-14bn fighter jet contract. This aerial campaign served as the air force for Libyan militants to bring about Western regime change. But it also had the added benefit of showcasing French and British warplanes that were fresh off the production line and poaching for international customers.

Eight months after NATO’s blitzkrieg on Libya finished, the government of India announced that it was opting for the Rafale.

The Financial Times on 7 July 2012 reported: “For Dassault’s Rafale and Eurofighter’s Typhoon, the conflict to unseat Libyan dictator Colonel Muammar Gaddafi helped to decide the biggest jet fighter tender ever.” The paper went on blandly: “In fact, the Typhoon and Rafale both performed well over Tripoli, bolstering confidence on both sides that they are the better aircraft. In the end, the French [warplanes] were quicker and that, say analysts, helped nudge India’s decision towards Dassault’s Rafale.”

That’s not the end of the affair. Even though the French seemed to clinch the fighter jet mega deal with India last July, the British have not given up hope on snatching the prize from their rival.

Indeed, hot on the heels of Hollande’s visit last week to New Delhi, British Prime Minister David Cameron was in India precisely to convince Premier Singh on the benefits of the Typhoon.

The Guardian quoted a Downing Street spokesman as saying: “We respect [sic] the fact that the Indians have chosen their preferred bidder and are currently negotiating with the French. Of course, we will continue to promote Eurofighter [Typhoon] as a great fast jet, not just in India but around the world.”

Given the magnitude of the aviation deal with India and other potential buyers, it can be safely assumed that the British have not been “respecting” the French rival, but rather have been lobbying New Delhi intensely to steal the deal ever since the Indian government signaled last year that it was opting for the Rafale.

The war on Libya may have launched the Rafale on the world stage as a lean fighting machine, winning over New Delhi in particular, but perhaps the French felt compelled subsequently to go to war in Mali with the aim of closing the Indian deal. Bear in mind that Hollande’s Rafale-selling delegation to India comes one month after the beginning of the French offensive in its former West African colony.

With British rival pressure bearing down on the French, it is not inconceivable that deployment of the Rafale in the challenging environment of Mali was contrived as a timely reminder to India of the aircraft’s military capabilities.

It should be recalled that France’s military intervention in Mali on 11 January – as with NATO’s bombing of Libya – was not authorized by the UN Security Council. The latter only gave a qualified approval last December for the deployment of an African-led mission to Mali under the auspices of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which was envisaged to take place in September later this year. The French jumped the gun for an urgent reason. Why?

The official French rationale for launching its sudden offensive in West Africa – defending Europe’s security from terrorism – does not quite ring true. After all, the radical militants it is supposedly combating in Mali are the same, or are closely related to, the Mujahideen militants in Libya that the Rafale fighter jets were providing air cover for in 2011. These same elements are also linked to extremists that France and other NATO states are supporting in Syria to overthrow the Assad government in Damascus. Clearly, the official French rationale for its military intervention in Mali spearheaded by the Rafale fighter jets does not add up.

But a “sale of the century” hanging in the balance involving fighter jets to India worth $12-14 billion? Now, that does make sense.

Finian Cunningham is a former editor and writer for major news media organizations. He has written extensively on international affairs, with articles published in several languages Read other articles by Finian.