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12:50 PM, March 22, 2017
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Dassault Rafale fighter jet. Photo credit: Defenseworld.net

Malaysian Defense ministry's top official is promoting France's Dassault Rafale fighter jet as the SouthEast Asian country considers to replace its aging fleet of combat aircraft.

French President Francois Hollande is likely to make a pitch for the Rafale, made by Dassault Aviation SA, when he and his team visit Malaysia next week, an official in Malaysia’s defence ministry said on Wednesday.

Malaysia is eyeing to buy up to 18 jets in a deal potentially worth more than US$2 billion, despite narrowing its defence spending this year, Channel News Asia reported today.

"The ministry's top leadership has been promoting the Rafale," said an unnamed official to Channel News Asia. "It's been done in promotional material for LIMA, and even at top government meetings," the source said, referring to this week's biennial Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace Exhibition. Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said that the race for new fighter jets has narrowed down to the Rafale and the Eurofighter Typhoon, built by BAE Systems.

The plan is to replace the Royal Malaysian Air Force's (RMAF) squadron of Russian MiG-29 combat planes, nearly half of which are grounded.

Dassault, which refused comment when approached, has kept a low profile in the race, whereas BAE has been on a consistent and public campaign over the past six years to bag the Malaysian contract.

Steve Osborne, BAE's sales director for military air and information for the Asia Pacific region, said the Typhoon had a good chance of landing the deal as the company already supplied defence equipment to Malaysia.

Any decision would take at least two more years, as Prime Minister Najib Razak is focused on more domestic concerns in the run up to national polls that must be held by 2018, a government official said.

Malaysia cut its total defence budget by 12.7 percent to 15.1 billion ringgit (US$3.41 billion) this year, as Najib grapples with growing public discontent over rising living costs.

Besides Dassault and BAE, other suitors courting Malaysia are Russia's Sukhoi and Sweden's SAAB, which is selling its single engine Gripen.

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