April 18, 2011 / 1:57 PM / in 7 years

Special Report: How Libya is a showcase in the new arms race

PARIS (Reuters) - The photograph shows a French Rafale warplane at the Mitiga air base outside Tripoli. A small crowd of men, women and children mill around the fighter, its tail fin lit up by the North African sun.

Taken at an air show in October 2009, the picture is one of several grabbed by military aviation photographers from Dutch website scramble.nl that highlight one of the ironies in the West’s enforcement of a no-fly zone over Libya.

To take out Muammar Gaddafi’s air defenses, western powers such as France and Italy are using the very aircraft and weapons that only months ago they were showing off to the Libyan leader.

French Rafales like those on show in 2009 flew the western alliance’s very first missions over Libya just over two weeks ago. One of the Rafale’s theoretical targets: Libya’s French-built Mirage jets which Paris had recently agreed to repair.

The Libyan operation also marks the combat debut for the Eurofighter Typhoon, a competitor to the Dassault Rafale built by Britain, Germany, Italy and Spain. An Italian Air Force version of that plane was snapped at the 2009 show hosted by Libyan generals. Two weeks ago, that base - to which arms firms including Dassault returned last November - was attacked by western bombs.

Times change, allegiances shift, but weapons companies will always find takers for their goods. Libya won’t be buying new kit any time soon. But the no-fly zone has become a prime showcase for other potential weapons customers, underlining the power of western combat jets and smart bombs, or reminding potential buyers of the defensive systems needed to repel them.

“This is turning into the best shop window for competing aircraft for years. More even than in Iraq in 2003,” says Francis Tusa, editor of UK-based Defense Analysis. “You are seeing for the first time on an operation the Typhoon and the Rafale up against each other, and both countries want to place an emphasis on exports. France is particularly desperate to sell the Rafale.”

Almost every modern conflict from the Spanish Civil War to Kosovo has served as a test of air power. But the Libyan operation to enforce UN resolution 1973 coincides with a new arms race --a surge of demand in the $60 billion a year global fighter market and the arrival of a new generation of equipment in the air and at sea. For the countries and companies behind those planes and weapons, there’s no better sales tool than real combat. For air forces facing cuts, it is a strike for the value of air power itself.

“As soon as an aircraft or weapon is used on operational deployment, that instantly becomes a major marketing ploy; it becomes ‘proven in combat’,” says a former defense export official with a NATO country, speaking on condition of anonymity about the sensitive subject.

A spokesman for the Eurofighter consortium said it had “never been involved in talks to sell the aircraft to Libya” and its presence at the Lavex air show outside Tripoli in 2009 was part of an Italian delegation organised at government level. Defense sources tell Reuters that Britain and Germany had vetoed any sale of Italian Typhoons to Libya, but the amount of other Italian military hardware on display demonstrated warm relations at the time between Tripoli and the government of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

France has been less timid about announcing arms talks with Libya which briefly held an exclusive option for Rafale jets. A French source, who asked not to be named, declined to comment in detail on past negotiations but said arms sales were handled at a government-to-government level.

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