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Dassault goes it alone with Mirage

By Edward GirardetSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / January 15, 1980


Just over three-year ago, French aircraft magnate Marcel Dassault invested in a highly dangerous multimillion-dollar gambit that he hoped would enable France to maintain a competitive foothold in the international military aviation arena.

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Lacking government support but with financial help from Saudi Arabia the aircraft manufacturer independently set about constructing the Mirage 4000, Mr. Dassault's new "Avion de Combat Futur" (ACF) and its answer to the firm's main competitor, McDonnell Douglas's F-15.

Mr. Dassault's move was in response to French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing's decision in December 1975 to scrap official plans to support the ACF at $17 million to $20 million each. The government considered the twin-engined, delta-winged Mirage 4000 too expensive. It was also too sophisticated for France's own defense needs. Instead, it chose Mr. Dassault's other new plane, the cheaper single-engined Mirage 2000, as its standard fighter for the 1980s.

Considered one of the most daring gambles in modern aviation history, Mr. Dassault's decision to go it alone risks commercial disaster if it fails.

But the 88-year-old aircraft manufacturer realized that if he could not produce a followup to his highly successful Mirage III and F-1 fighters, he would no longer be able to compete with the Americans and Soviets in years to come. He would also be forced to lay off his prized team of aircraft designers, a step that would spell ruin for the firm's renowned innovative and creative ability.

In March 1979 Mr. Dassault was ready with the first Mirage 4000 prototype. Later, his pilots gave the plane its first public debut at the June Paris Air Show in which more than 650 companies from 25 countries exhibited.

Publicitywise, the plane was a huge success. But so far the Avions Marcel Dassault- Breguet Aviation has not sold any of the planes. "Our main problem is to remain competitive with the Americans," said one company spokesman. "But we are confident that we'll start selling soon."

Mr. Dassault feels his best chance for making the Mirage 4000 justify its massive investment and risk is by concentrating on the Middle East. Two-thirds or France's oil originates from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf emirates, which has encouraged the Paris government to cultivate a pro-Arab policy.

Although the American F-15 sells for $12 million each, at least 25 percent cheaper than his own plane, Mr. Dassault may have much to gain from US and Soviet political difficulties with third-world buyers. The Chinese, for example , expressed a strong interest in the plane early last year.

But if sales have not begun rolling yet with the Mirage 4000, Mr. Dassault seems to have less to worry about with sales of his other planes, although he admits that the competition is severe.

Last year, the Dassault-Breguet (the two companies merged in 1971), which employs 15,000 designers and workers throughout France, chalked up record sales worth 13.5 billion francs ($3.4 billion).

This was a significant improvement over the slight slump in sales (10.5 billion francs or $2.6 billion) in 1978. It was even a noticeable jump over the 1977 record year when the firm placed 12.5 billion francs ($3.1 billion) worth of orders.