McDonnell a Part of French Fighter Debate : Some Want U.S. Jets to Replace Aging Aircraft

Times Staff Writer

Premier Michel Rocard, outraged by the high cost and delays of the French Rafale combat aircraft program, says it is in an "advanced state of disaster."

A senior French admiral, testifying last week before a closed-door meeting of the National Assembly's defense commission, said the navy would prefer to buy cheaper and more immediately available McDonnell Douglas F-18 Hornets to replace its obsolete carrier aircraft.

A secret report by a former deputy in the National Assembly, made public last week by the defense commission, questioned the ability of the government to pay for the estimated $19-billion fighter program under contract with Avions Marcel Dassault-Breguet Aviation, the company that makes all of France's combat aircraft. The news magazine L'Express called the Rafale program an "abyss of billions" of French francs.

For a time, American officials, who saw an opening for a significant arms deal, and France's Western European neighbors, who are working to build the European Fighter Aircraft that would be a direct competitor with the Rafale, had some hope that the French program might be canceled. Involved are 250 aircraft for the air force and 86 for the navy, each with an estimated price tag of about $55 million.

By this past weekend, however, French politicians, union leaders and industrialists had rallied around the fighter, which will not be ready for production until the late 1990s. When the dust cleared, it appeared that the Rafale program would almost certainly be continued, although some important modifications appear possible.

Defense Minister Jean-Pierre Chevenement said it boiled down to a matter of national pride. "What other choice do we have?" he asked. "Would it be a better thing to buy from the Americans?"

Communist Party leader George Marchais, whose affiliated Confederation General de Travail labor group has a strong hold among 300,000 workers involved in various subcontracts for the program, went further. "It is clear and obvious that the Americans mounted the offensive against the Rafale," Marchais said.

Diplomatic sources here said plans by the French navy to test F-18s on their carriers have been indefinitely postponed.

Meanwhile, Rocard was criticized in the authoritative newspaper Le Monde for his "verbal slip" in describing the Rafale program as being in "a state of advanced disaster." He was also chided for raising the Rafale issue as an attack on his rival, former Premier Jacques Chirac, whose ties with the Dassault family are widely believed to have kept the program alive.

The net result of the brief flurry over the fighter-- rafale in French means "squall" or "strong gust"--is that the government may be in a better position to negotiate alternatives to canceling the program.

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