The New Rafale

Issue: 1 / 2014By R. ChandrakanthPhoto(s): By Amboise French Air Force / Dassault Aviation

Thanks to its versatility, adaptability and ability to meet all air mission requirements, the Rafale is the “poster child” transformational fighter which provides a way forward to air forces confronted to the requirement of doing “more” with “less”, in an ever-changing strategic and economic environment

Dassault Aviation’s Rafale fighter aircraft is the only totally “omni-role” aircraft in the world, able to operate from a land base or an aircraft carrier, capable of carrying 1.5 times its weight in weapons and fuel. It has been designed to perform the full spectrum of combat missions. The French defence major not only keeps itself abreast of contemporary demands of an operational force, but also looks futuristically on what would give the Rafale continued fighting edge. In continuation of this strategy, on January 10, the French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian handed Eric Trappier, Chairman and CEO of Dassault Aviation, the F3R standard development contract for the Rafale combat aircraft. The F3R standard is an evolution of the Rafale F3 standard. It is part of the ongoing process to continuously improve the aircraft in line with operational requirements and the validation of the F3R standard is scheduled for 2018.

Negotiations were finalised with the Directorate General of Armaments (DGA) on December 30. In total, about one billion euros will be invested in the upgrade programme, which will benefit all of France’s combat aviation industry.

The upgrade programme will enable Dassault Aviation to integrate the following equipment and weapons onto the Rafale:

  • The European Meteor long-range air-to-air missile produced by MBDA. This high-performance missile will achieve maximum effectiveness thanks to the “active array” radar which equips all production Rafale aircraft delivered since mid-2013.
  • The Thales PDL-NG new-generation laser designator pod. Primarily used for air-to-ground strikes, in daylight or darkness, this pod will further enhance the high degree of precision that the Rafale has achieved since its first engagements (in the Afghan theatre in 2007).
  • The laser homing version of the Sagem AASM air-to-ground modular weapon. This family of weapons, with GPS primary guidance and an additional booster, is unmatched. It was used by the Rafale during 2011 operations in Libya to destroy targets at ranges of several tens of kilometres with metric precision. The laser homing version is particularly adapted to moving targets.

F3R will also include upgrades to Rafale sensors and to systems ensuring total interoperability. The launch of the F3R standard guarantees the French forces will continue to have high-performance aircraft adapted to their requirements. It reinforces the strong points of the Rafale in export competitions. It contributes to maintaining the competences of the design bureaux of Dassault Aviation and its industrial partners at a world-class level. It confirms the ongoing improvement process and opens the way to future developments for France and export customers.

“This is a clear signal of our commitment to invest in the Rafale, and in a very strategic sector, that of combat aviation, so as to maintain it as the best in the world,” said Jean-Yves Le Drian. “It also guarantees the long-term availability of a line of products that continue to meet the requirements of the export market.”

All of these functional and physical modifications reinforce the Rafale’s omni-role character. During the same flight, the aircraft can carry out different types of missions, such as ground attack and air defence. Totally versatile, the Rafale provides the capability to carry out the full range of missions that can be assigned to a combat aircraft: air superiority and air defence; attack of land and naval targets; close air support of ground troops; reconnaissance and nuclear strike. It is also the first aircraft designed from the outset to operate both from a land base than from an aircraft carrier. It is operated by the French Air Force and the Navy.

Till date, 180 production aircraft have been ordered and 126 delivered in three versions: namely 39 “M” single-seaters for the Navy, 42 “B” two-seaters and 45 “C” single-seaters for the air force. The Rafale has been deployed for combat operations in Afghanistan, Libya and Mali. The Rafale entered service with the French Navy in 2004 and with the French Air Force in 2006. Of the 180 aircraft ordered by France till date, 126 have been delivered. The Rafale fleet currently totals almost 1,20,000 flight hours, including 16,000 in operations. Since mid-2013, production Rafale aircraft are equipped with active array RBE2 AESA radar from Thales.

With over 8,000 military and civil aircraft delivered to 83 countries over the past 60 years, and having logged nearly 28 million flight hours till date, Dassault Aviation offers recognised know-how and experience in the design, development, sale and support of all types of aircraft, from the Rafale fighter to the Falcon range of high-end business jets, as well as military unmanned air systems. The Rafale is the only operational European combat aircraft equipped with an “active electronically scanned array”. Partial integration of this weapon was already performed as an “urgent operational requirement” for the French intervention in Mali.

The Rafale, with its “omni-role” capabilities, is the right answer to the capability approach selected by an increasing number of governments. India is expected to finalise a $15-billion deal to buy 126 Rafale aircraft. Negotiations between the French aviation firm and Indian Defence Ministry have been going on for months and it is expected that the deal will be finalised soon.

The fighter plane comes in three variants: “C”—a true air defence variant; “B” —a two-seat multi-role strike fighter/conversion trainer and; “M” —a single-seat naval fighter. Though not completely stealth, efforts have been made to keep the radar signature as low as possible, by the use of specialised composite material in the construction of fuselage—making Rafale the first French fighter plane to make an attempt at stealth technology. A mixture of Kevlar and carbon components are said to make up the finishing of the surface of the aircraft. One of its main features is the presence of advanced Thales RBE2 passive electronically scanned multi-role radar. Thales claims to have achieved unprecedented levels of situational awareness through the earlier detection and tracking of multiple air targets for close combat and long-range interception, as well as realtime generation of three-dimensional maps for terrain-following and the real-time generation of high resolution ground maps for navigation and targeting. The RBE2 is soon to be upgraded with an even advance RBE2 AA system that promises to provide greater detection range, improved reliability and reduced maintenance demands. The aircraft is capable of conducting both air-toground and reconnaissance operations.

It fully complies with the requirement to carry out the widest range of roles with the smallest number of aircraft. The Rafale regularly carries out “quick reaction alert” (QRA)/air-defence/air sovereignty missions, power projection and deployments for external missions, deep strike missions, air support for ground forces, reconnaissance missions, pilot training sorties and nuclear deterrence duties.

The Rafale has consistently scored in latest conflicts and the company summarises them into four overarching expectations: versatility, that is the capability, with the same system, to perform different missions; interoperability or the ability to fight in coalition with the allies, using common procedures and standards agreements, and collaborating and communicating in real-time with other systems; flexibility, which can be illustrated by the ability to conduct several different missions in the course of the same sortie (omni-role capability); and survivability that is the capability to survive in a dense threat environment thanks to its stealthiness and/or to advanced electronic warfare systems. The Rafale is relevant against both traditional and asymmetrical threats, it addresses the emerging needs of the armed forces in a changing geopolitical context, and it remains at the forefront of technical innovation. Thanks to its versatility, adaptability and ability to meet all air mission requirements, the Rafale is the “poster child” transformational fighter which provides a way forward to air forces confronted to the requirement of doing “more” with “less”, in an ever-changing strategic and economic environment.