In the early 1990s, when Dassault Aviation began producing the Rafale combat jet, it did so with the expectation of cranking out as many as three of the multirole fighters per month, an assumption based on anticipated demand from two reliable anchor tenants—the French air force and navy—and success on the global export market.

Since then, a variety of factors converged to stymie these plans—notably the end of the Cold War and multiple economic downturns—prompting the French military to reduce spending and, correspondingly, slow deliveries of the Rafale.

In parallel, export orders for the very capable but also costly combat jet failed to materialize.

That changed in February, however, when Egypt abruptly ordered 24 Rafale fighters and a French frigate under a €5.2 billion ($5.5 billion) deal financed through French export credit. Then Qatar signed on for 24 Rafales and an option for 12 more under a contract valued at up to €6.3 billion, and India announced a plan to purchase 36 of the fighters in lieu of the 126 it committed to in 2012 but had yet to finalize.

With 48 firm export orders for Rafale jets to be produced by 2021, Dassault will gradually ramp up production at its Merignac assembly facility in southwestern France, a process the company’s CEO says is feasible.

“It will mean a slight increase in the production line, but initially we are replacing aircraft that were supposed to be manufactured for French forces with the orders under these first two contracts,” Dassault Aviation Chairman and CEO Eric Trappier says, adding that the real ramp-up in Rafale production will come with signature of a third export contract.

“In that case, we will have to really increase the production rate, but it’s not the case now, because the French defense ministry’s Rafale orders have been delayed for budgetary reasons, mainly,” he says. “So for the time being it doesn’t really affect the workload.”

Trappier says that because the Egyptian and Qatari Rafales are similar in design and function to those Dassault is now producing for the French air force, the company’s design office will see minimal impact. Likewise, he says Dassault is confident it can simultaneously boost production of major civil programs in tandem with the Rafale, notably with its new Falcon 5X and Falcon 8X business-jet developments.

“As far as Falcon is concerned, for the time being we have no problem in terms of the capabilities needed to manufacture new aircraft,” Trappier says. “Design is depending on our 5X implementation, so I would prefer the workload of the 5X to go down before we start a new program.”

The orders are, however, a challenge for the Rafale supply chain. Dassault builds about 60% of the aircraft, while French electronics-specialist Thales manufactures 25% of the fighter. Safran’s Snecma motors division produces the Rafale’s twin M88 engines and other parts, comprising about 15%.

When the Rafale was conceived in the late 1980s—the last aircraft of Dassault founder and Resistance figure Marcel Dassault—it was important for both the company and the French government that the fighter be totally independent of U.S. arms export regulations. With the supply chain primarily in France, Paris is free to export the Rafale as it chooses, but it must rely on some very small and specialized companies.

More than 500 aerospace suppliers now participate in the fighter program, in what is known as the Groupe Inter Entreprises (InterCompanies Group). After years of fruitless export campaign efforts—Dassault failed to seal deals for the fighter in 2002 with South Korea, in 2008 with Morocco and in 2013 with Brazil—this year’s sudden uptake is a huge relief. The situation was serious: In April, Marwan Lahoud, Airbus Group chief strategist and president of French equipment supplier group Gifas, warned that thousands of jobs would be lost if France’s €31.4 billion annual defense budget had to be cut, due in large put to a lack of Rafale exports.

If Dassault and its suppliers have been so far extremely careful, the unions have already calculated what a ramp-up could mean for them: Dassault could need, according to the trade unions, up to 500 new employees, especially in the southwest of France, where the wings, some primary parts and composite parts are produced.

Safran, which produces the wiring and landing gear in addition to the M88, hopes to add 400 new people to face the ramp-up if production doubles.

Thales has not planned to hire additional manpower, yet, says Gil Michielin, the group’s new head of avionics. The French company has faced a long-term dip in orders and a corresponding reduction in workforce over the past two decades and is relieved that the new export sales will turn the tide.

But the unions hope for 200-300 new employees to support increased production and renew the workforce, which has aged dramatically since the launch of the program. In all, it could mean 2,000 new jobs for technicians, wiring specialists and test engineers in France. But challenges remain, as Thales says it will need time to train skilled technicians and guarantee a fully reliable aircraft. Most of these specialists are already badly needed for the boom in civil aeronautics.

Michielin says French suppliers could be unexpectedly aided by Rafale export customers, since Egypt will rely on French companies for training and MRO. Qatar, too, may be interested in getting involved in aircraft production; it is already developing joint ventures with aerospace companies.

Thales, which is very active in the civil aviation industry, has opened a facility in Doha “to be closer to the customer,” Michelin explains.

India, which is still negotiating terms and conditions for the Rafale order, could help complete the fighters as well. Both Dassault and Thales have teams in India and have engaged local companies, Trappier said March 25 during a handover ceremony of the first two upgraded Mirage 2000s at the company’s flight-test center in southern France.

“We have established a close relationship with HAL [Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd.]—the major partner in the program—since they are upgrading the rest of the fleet in India and developing additional capabilities on their own for the Mirage 2000,” he said. In addition to HAL, he said a group of Indian companies is also supporting the program.

Thales also has a team of 15 people working with local companies, as the remaining 47 aircraft of this program are being retrofitted in India, which could ensure cooperation with HAL for the ramp-up—but the final contract has yet to be signed.

In early June, India signaled it would buy just 36 Rafale fighter jets, insisting that the government’s plans to buy 126 combat aircraft were economically unsound and militarily unnecessary.

However, Trappier says he has not abandoned all hope of selling more Rafales to New Delhi in addition to the 36 now in negotiation, pointing out that the Indian air force needs far more than just 36 new fighters.

Meanwhile, the French air force has welcomed the sudden advent of Rafale export orders, noting the contracts will allow the military to uphold strategic planning laid out in the so-called 2013 “White Book” and the defense spending scheme flowing from it in the 2014-19 military program law, or LPM.

The contracts pose some operational constraints to the military, though, necessitating urgency in modernizing 55 Mirage 2000D aircraft to maintain external commitments, French air force chief Gen. Denis Mercier told the National Assembly in April.

Mercier, who will soon leave his post for a top job at NATO, says the contracts also impose “additional costs,” notably for training.

“We are going to meet our obligations, but we have to assure ourselves it will be compensated so that we can guarantee modernization as stipulated in the LPM,” he said, adding that the export orders could also constrain operational activity and hamper plans called for in the LPM to stand up a second squadron of Rafales by 2018 in support of France’s nuclear deterrent.

“In this context, we are going to put in place stopgap solutions,” he said. “We are trying in particular to divide the costs over the entire air force to maintain this effort over time and are studying use of the Mirage 2000C and 2000N in overseas operations in order to reduce the demand on our Mirage 2000D squadrons.”

Mercier said in the current operational environment, which includes commitments in Mali and Iraq, “it is more important than ever to continue the strategic plan we’ve committed to for three years in the air force..”