The French jets that have helped bomb Libya's armed forces over the last few weeks were not long ago on sale to Muammar Qaddafi's military. A photographer for the Dutch aviation magazine Scramble captured some photos of a French-built Rafale and an Italian Air Force Eurofighter Typhoon on display at an air show near Tripoli in October 2009. One of the targets in the latest air campaign has been Libya's fleet of French Mirage jets, maintenance of which Libya recently contracted with France.
As Reuters' Tim Hepher points out, the latest Western offensive in the country is itself acting as an air show of sorts for weapons manufacturers to get the attention of other countries in the weapons market.
"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."
Time's Battleland blog points to India and some Southeast Asian nations as potential customers watching with interest. It's worth noting as well that the Chinese Navy has almost finished building its first aircraft carrier. That craft's air fleet hasn't been assembled yet, so while watchers predict a collection of Russian-built SU-33s and Chinese J-10s, there's still plenty of room to expand. The Rafale and Typhoon can both operate from aircraft carriers.
But the politics of large weapons sales are, as you can imagine, still tricky. Eurofighter denies that it ever discussed sales with Libya and said its plane was only there as part of an Italian government delegation. The French government has been more forthcoming, previously announcing arms talks with Libya that included a briefly held "exclusive option for Rafale jets," Reuters notes.