The French Dassault Rafale is one of just three fighters in production in Europe today, and the only French fighter in production, with the aircraft intended as a replacement for the older Mirage 2000 platform. The Rafale first flew in 1986 and entered service in 2001, and is considered a '4+ generation' aircraft from the lower medium-light weight range. Although derived from the Eurofighter program pursued jointly by Britain, Germany and Italy, the Rafale has several important differences including the use of much weaker Snecma M88 engines which make the jet much slower and less manoeuvrable and have reduced its altitude ceiling by almost five thousand meters relative to the Eurofigther - but have also given it a longer range due to lower fuel consumption. The fighter is from the same weight range as the American F-18C Hornet, originally using the Hornet's F404 engines for testing before the M88 was developed, and like the F-18 the French jet was designed to prioritise a low operational cost and the ability to perform a wide range of roles - meaning it was not specialised in either air to air or land attack and was less capable in either of these roles than more specialised heavier designs.

Despite its small size and the limitations on many of its technologies, particularly when compared to more advanced aircraft now on the market such as the American F-35A which is not only a generation ahead technologically but also considerably cheaper, the Rafale is one of the most expensive fighters on world markets and has been sold for $240-260 million per unit. There have been a number of reasons for this high cost, including the more general reasons such as the low purchasing power in the French economy and general inefficiency in the country's defence sector, as well as the very small scale on which the Rafale is being produced relative to rival fighters such as the F-18, MiG-29 or F-35 which has meant that the program has not benefitted from economies of scale. This has contributed to the platform's generally poor performance on world markets. 

A major impediment to the Rafale's success is that it combines a high cost with a very light and unspecialised airframe, meaning that for countries seeking out a high end fighter they will be inclined to look towards something heavier and more capable like the F-15 or Su-35, while for those seeking a cheap medium or lightweight fighter the F-16V, F-18E or MiG-35 would be more cost effective. The Rafale has lost the vast majority of its export bids as a result, from South Korea and Singapore which selected the powerful F-15, to Egypt which turned down offers for second Rafale batches for the Su-35, and Brazil, Oman, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait which all rejected the jets for other Western medium or lightweight designs such as the F-16 and F-18. The failure of the Moroccan bid led French Defence Minister Herve Morin to claim that the cause was the aircraft's excessive sophistication and cost, although Morocco's subsequent decision to acquire F-16V jets which were in some ways more advanced but more cost effective undermined this argument. Libya too, which was considering acquiring the Rafale before war broke out in the country in 2011, reportedly rejected the fighter in favour of the more cost effective and much heavier and more capable Su-30 which it was planning orders for. 

The most notable failure in France's efforts to export the Rafale came in 2018, when France offered Belgium 20 billion Euros in investments if the country chose its fighter over the Eurofighter and F-35A under a “strategic and economic partnership” deal. The manufacturer Dassault Aviation promised an economic return of 100% of the purchase price over 20 years and more than 5,000 high-tech jobs should Belgium purchase the Rafale, a significant deviation from procedure reflecting France's desperation to compensate for its fighter's lack of competitiveness. No other supplier was offering any remotely comparable economic benefits, leading to widespread expectations that the Rafale would win despite its weaker performance. France went on to lose sorely when Belgium selected the F-35A, with French media outlets widely slamming the choice for its lack of solidarity with a neighbouring European power and French officials expressing strong disappointment. This was a result of expectations that Belgium's' choice would be influenced by political and economic interests rather than an objective assessment of which fighter was best - with the F-35A having clear superiority both in terms of capability and cost effectiveness.

Not only has France failed to secure many orders for its Rafale fighter, but for those three states which did place orders none appeared eager to order follow-up batches of the fighter. Egypt, for one, ordered 24 fighters in 2014 shortly after the overthrow of its Western aligned government. The rationale for the purchase was widely seen to be political in order to gain European recognition for the new military-led government in Cairo, and although France appeared to have high hopes that Egypt would acquire at least a dozen more Rafale fighters the Egyptian military has shown no interest in the costly but apparently mediocre design. It has instead looked to Russia both for Su-35 heavyweight jets, and for lighter aircraft is reportedly considering the MiG-35, J-10C and JF-17 Block III with the J-10 in particular considered much more sophisticated. Qatar, which was the second to receive the Rafale, notably did not make further orders and has instead invested heavily in the F-15QA - the most expensive and advanced F-15 variant yet to be produced. The F-15's capabilities surpass those of the Rafale across the spectrum, although even for the QA variant the difference in cost is not very significant given how big the discrepancy in performance is. Qatar is currently considering a further order for F-15 jets, and has even show interest in the Su-35 although it was reportedly dissuaded form purchasing the Russian aircraft due to threats of U.S. sanctions. No interest in more Rafale jets has been shown.

The Rafale's third export client India notably reduced its order from 126 jets to just 36, and as the only export client for the jet with a political opposition the purchase has caused a major scandal domestically and widespread allegations of corruption. India has not shown an interest in acquiring further Rafale fighters, and since purchasing the jets it has placed multiple orders for dozens of further units of heavier Russian fighters. India is currently holding discussions to purchase and has shown considerable interest in both the Russian MiG-35 '4++ generation' medium fighter and the Su-57 next generation heavyweight fighter, and is expected to purchase both once the designs further mature. The Rafale is the slowest fighter in the Indian Air Force and has the lowest altitude ceiling, which seriously restricts its usefulness when operating in mountainous border regions. This combined with its high price and the newer and much more cost effective aircraft being offered by Russia, as well as growing reliance on the domestic defence sector, between them seriously diminish prospects for future sales.

A further factor which has diminished the foreign sales of the Rafale is France's limited political clout, as while the purchases which were made were all seen to have had strong political motivations the French fighter has often lost out due to greater British and American political influence over potential clients. While there is little doubt that the F-15 is a much better fighter, Singapore and South Korea's decisions to acquire the jets over the Rafale are also thought to have been influenced by their close defence ties with the United States - which has threatened its clients with harsh consequences in the past should they turn to non-American arms and spurn its own defence products. Taiwan, which was a leading client for the Rafale's predecessor the Mirage 2000, notably did not even consider acquiring non-American fighters, and its purchase of the F-16V was seen as a highly political decision made in exchange for American backing. The very poor manufacturing quality of the Mirage jets, which suffered from an extremely 10% high crash rate and cracks in the airframes, relative to domestic and American sourced fighters, likely also influenced the Taiwanese decision. In the Persian Gulf region, which has absorbed all foreign sales of the Eurofighter other than a small sale to Austria, British influence and close defence ties to Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia were seen to have played a major role in pressing these governments to purchase the Eurofighter over competing aircraft - which combined with its performance shortcomings left the Rafale little chance of entering the market.

A number of factors have made the Rafale an unpopular fighter on export markets, despite very aggressive marketing efforts by France, reports of bribes and other underhanded means of securing orders, and the tying of purchases to political support. France's relatively small and inefficient defence sector appears to have met its limit with the fighter program, with small production lines unable to produce the aircraft quickly or efficiently and the French budget for research an development dwarfed by those of better established producers such as the United States and China. The fact that the aircraft is neither cheap and light, nor expensive and high-end, occupying a 'no-man's land' position in between, had further impeded its potential for export success. Ultimately the jet is likely to be the last purely French fighter, with future generations expected to be pursued alongside European partners due to the unviability and France's inability to afford developing a more advanced aircraft given the limitations on its defence sector. It remains highly uncertain whether any further export contracts will ever be signed, but few countries are currently showing any interest in the Rafale.

Military Watch Magazine