By Tim Hepher and Karen Jacobs
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, for instance, 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 the West.
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 organized 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.
"HOT WAR" SOLUTIONS
Air shows like the one outside Tripoli 18 months ago are a routine fixture of the arms industry's marketing calendar. But to convince potential buyers, Defense equipment needs to be tested and survive what marketers call a "hot war."
"Battle-testing is something often referred to by the arms industry as an important factor for promoting their wares to export customers," says Paul Holtom, director of the Arms Transfers Program at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
A 'hot war' gives arms buyers a chance to cut through marketing jargon and check claims are justified. "Everyone is looking at Libya. It is definitely a showcase," one western Defense company official told Reuters on condition of anonymity. A Dassault executive, who did not want to be named, said the Rafale had been "combat-proven" since being deployed in Afghanistan in 2007.
What buyers and the world's military attaches are actually watching out for may be far less dramatic than Top Gun-style dogfights, which are unlikely to feature in the one-sided Libyan campaign. Instead, according to industry executives, prospective buyers will be hungry for detailed information on reliability, the ability of aircraft to operate seamlessly with other forces or systems and the ability of operational squadrons to generate high sortie rates for the minimum amount of repair.
The rewards are huge. India, Brazil, Denmark, Greece, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Oman and Kuwait are among a growing list of countries shopping for one or more of the fighters flying sorties over Libya.
The deal of the moment: India's plan to buy 126 fighter jets, an order which should be worth an estimated $10 billion. Reliability, say industry experts, is likely to be the key to winning the exports.
Four of the six companies in the running to sell New Delhi planes - Dassault's Rafale, the Eurofighter Typhoon, Lockheed Martin's F-16 and Boeing's F/A-18 - have already helped enforce the no-fly zone over Libya. A fifth contender, the Saab Gripen, arrived in Sicily at the weekend, ready to take part in the first air combat action by the Swedish air force in decades.
France is also using its new Horizon-class frigate and latest air-to-ground missiles.
But it's not just offensive equipment such as planes and missiles. Aerial shock and awe provides free advertising for companies that build early warning systems and missile defenses.
"Libya is a reminder that if you can't compete on the level of attack platforms, then you need to compete on the level of Defense systems," says Siemon Wezeman, senior fellow at SIPRI. "Libya had reasonable air defenses and yet they didn't make a dent. If you want to defend yourself, you need either the aircraft or the defensive systems. You will see countries asking people like Russia and China what they can provide." U.S.-built systems from companies like Lockheed Martin and Raytheon are already in high demand in the Gulf, to counter the perceived threat from Iran.
"CRADLE TO GRAVE TESTING"
But convincing countries to buy expensive weaponry and equipment requires more than just showing it off. "If you meet 100 percent of the operational requirement, you have still have won only 25 percent of the race," the former NATO Defense export official told Reuters.
U.S. diplomatic cables, obtained by WikiLeaks and seen by Reuters, detail repeated efforts by U.S. diplomats to drum up high-level political support for fighter jet and other sales -- efforts which according to Defense industry sources are matched by intense lobbying by France Britain, Russia and others. One cable, from around the time of the 2009 Libya air show, comes from the U.S. embassy in New Delhi which recounted how India, once a major Soviet arms buyer, was warming to the idea of U.S. weapons thanks to their proven combat capability.
"They recognize the quality of U.S. systems and have been astounded by the mission-capable rates quoted for U.S. aircraft compared to their older Russian inventory," the embassy told Michele Flournoy, U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, in October 2009.