Recent reports indicate that France is closing in on Russia as the second biggest arms exporter in the world. Reports of recent agreements to sell French arms to India and Qatar indicate that France’s defense industry is gaining momentum. This development comes as Russian arms exports have declined due to the war in Ukraine, leading to speculations that France might soon become the world’s second-largest weapons exporter, following the United States which is currently the biggest arms exporter in the world.
During this year’s Bastille Day military parade on July 14, French President Emmanuel Macron was accompanied by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Notably, it wasn’t just French forces on display; the Indian Tri-Services contingent marched on the Champs-Élysées, while the Indian Air Force showcased French-made Dassault Rafale fighter jets in a fly-past.
To observers following the international arms trade closely, this news shouldn’t be surprising. Prior to this, New Delhi granted initial approval for an order of six Scorpène submarines and 26 Rafale jets for the Indian Navy. Later, on July 25, La Tribune newspaper reported that Qatar was considering acquiring an additional 24 Rafales.
According to the annual Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) report published in March, France’s share of the global arms trade increased to 11 percent between 2018 and 2022, compared to 7.1 percent in the previous four-year period. During the same time frame, Russia’s share of the international arms trade decreased from 22 to 16 percent.
A review of orders from late last year and the current year indicates that this trend is likely to continue. Pieter Wezeman, the author of the SIPRI report, confirms that the trends show France as a major arms exporter, even before India’s Rafale order.
Reasons behind Russia’s declining arms sales
The reasons for the decline in Russian arms sales are varied, mainly linked to the war in Ukraine. To diversify their suppliers, many countries are looking elsewhere. Furthermore, Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine shifted its focus to supplying the front line, holding onto specific arms systems, and replacing weapons destroyed in battle.
International sanctions on Russia might have also impacted its ability to secure necessary materials for arms production, thereby affecting its export capacity. Reports from the front lines in Ukraine have also marred the reputation of Russia-built armaments.
The war in Ukraine has become a “humbling showcase for Russian military technology,” as stated by Cullen Hendrix, an international affairs professor at the University of Denver, in a May contribution to Foreign Policy magazine. The war has exposed vulnerabilities, including “headless” tanks and high failure rates for Russian missiles.
Clients like India, the largest arms importer in the world, have been unsatisfied with Russian products lately. Consequently, India has turned to France, seeking alternative suppliers for their military needs. The war in Ukraine has also played a role in India being hesitant to maintain strong military relations with Moscow.
Additionally, the US wields significant influence over countries that procure weapons from Russia, even prior to the Ukraine conflict. For example, Indonesia abandoned a Russian aircraft purchase in 2021 and opted for US and French options instead.
Despite the decline in Russian arms sales, Russia continues to dominate arms deals in Africa and countries like Iran and China and still holds its position as the second biggest arms exporter in the world.
Dassault Rafale’s role in French arms export success
Dassault Aviation’s French-built Rafale fighter jets have played a pivotal role in France’s recent arms export success, according to Olivier Gras, the general secretary of EuroDéfense-France, a Paris-based association of civil and military officials.
The Rafale was first exported in 2015, even though it had been in service since 2002. Currently, it is operated by Greece, Qatar, India, and Egypt, with expected deliveries to Croatia, Indonesia, and the United Arab Emirates, which placed an order for 80 Standard F4 Rafales in 2021. Globally, nearly 500 Rafale deliveries and orders have been recorded, approximately half of Lockheed Martin’s main competitor, the F-35.
France has made significant progress in arms export, particularly with its Rafale fighter jets. However, in the European arms market, apart from Greece and Croatia, France hasn’t achieved substantial gains despite an increase in arms imports on the continent since the Ukraine war began.
Among European NATO members, Lockheed Martin’s F-35 is preferred due to its capability to carry US-made nuclear bombs.
Since February 2022, Dassault Aviation’s stock price has almost doubled following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Although the French arms industry is benefiting from the war, it’s essential to recognize that the increase in French arms deals is a result of long-standing policies that predate the Russian invasion.
In 2021, France surpassed China to become the world’s third-largest arms exporter. The 2022 SIPRI report documented a 59 percent increase in French arms sales over the previous ten years, the highest among all countries.
Whether France will surpass Russia as the world’s second-largest arms exporter remains uncertain. There are other growing suppliers like South Korea in the market.
Pieter Wezeman believes that it’s a real possibility that France could become equal to or even surpass Russia’s arms exports by 2024, 2025, or 2026.