The Rafale is a 9.5 – 10.5 tonne aircraft powered by 2 SNECMA M88 jet engines, each generating up to 16,500 pounds thrust with afterburner. Canards are used to improve maneuverability, especially for snap-shots in short-range dogfights, and radar shaping lowers the aircraft’s profile relative to 4th generation competitors like the Mirage 2000 or F-16. Carrier capability was a prime motivator behind France’s decision to go it alone with the Rafale program, and variants exist for both land-based and carrier use.
Despite its size, the Rafale can carry an impressive set of ordnance beyond its 30mm DEFA 791 cannon: up to 9.5 tonnes of weapons and stores on 14 pylons (1-2 on center fuselage, 2 below engine intakes, 6 underwing and 2 wingtip pylons), 5 of which are “wet” pylons that can carry heavy stores or fuel tanks. Its RBE2 mechanically-scanned array radar can direct MBDA’s MICA missiles, and future integration of the long-range Meteor is also planned. A combination of Thales/SAGEM’s OST Infrared Scan and Track optronics, and MBDA’s MICA IR medium-range missiles, allows the Rafale to supplement its radar-guided ordnance with no-warning attacks on enemy aircraft from beyond visual range. At present, this capability is only duplicated by Sukhoi’s SU-27/30 family, and advanced MiG-29s.
Rafale-M F1 (click to view full)
The aircraft comes in several broad types, and also comes in different capability tranches.
Carrier-capable Rafales are single-seat fighters, and are referred to as Rafale Ms. They will become the French Navy’s only fighters, replacing the F-8P Crusader fighter, Etendard IVP reconnaissance aircraft, and Super Etendard strike aircraft. They feature the usual set of carrier modifications, including lengthened and strengthened landing gear, strengthened airframe and arrester hook for landings, and carrier landing electronics. The front-center pylon is deleted on this version, in order to make room for that landing gear.
French Air Force Rafales come in 2 broad types: the preferred 2-seat Rafale B, and the single-seat Rafale C. They will eventually replace the SEPECAT Jaguar, Dassault’s Mirage F1, and most of the Mirage 2000 family in French service.
Rafale F3 (click to view full)
Within those designations, Dassault’s Rafales also come in capability tranches that are common across all versions.
Initial Rafale F1s are limited to air superiority missions, and included only Rafale-Ms intended as urgent replacements for the 1950s/60s eraF-8P Crusaders that served as the French carrier force’s air superiority fighters. Rafale F1s are capable fighters and represented a huge upgrade for the Marine Nationale, but even in air superiority mode they lack the wide weapons fit of 4+ generation counterparts like the JAS-39 Gripen or modern F-15 Strike Eagles, the optimized cockpit and defensive systems of EADS’ Eurofighter, or the price advantages of Sukhoi’s SU-30 family. Plans will upgrade them to the F3 configuration.
Most of the Rafales currently in service are built to the F2 standard, which adds the ability to carry and use precision ground attack weapons. This standard includes 2-seat air force Rafale-Bs, single-seat Rafale-Cs, and naval Rafale-Ms. Key additions include radar ground attack and terrain-following modes, carriage of laser-guided bombs and Storm Shadow/ Scalp cruise missiles, its OSF IRST sensor and MICA IR missile capability, Link 16 datalink, and a buddy tanker pod for Rafale Ms. The F2 standard does not include integration of independent laser targeting capability, however, which is why French Rafales over Afghanistan had to operate in conjunction with Super Etendard and Mirage 2000D fighters.
Since 2008, all Rafales have been delivered in the F3 standard, which adds the ability to carry French ASMP-A air-launched nuclear missiles, allowing the Rafale to replace the Mirage 2000N in that role. Other modifications include full integration with the Reco NG reconnaissance pod, implementation of all currently planned modes for the RBE2 radar, antiship attack with the Exocet or ANF, the Gerfaut helmet-mounted sight, and support for an improved tanker pack.
The batch ordered in 2009 will also have improved protection suites and Thales’ RBE2-AA AESA radar, replacing the mechanically-scanned RBE2 array on previous aircraft. Full integration with Thales’ Damocles surveillance and targeting pod was expected to be complete by 2010, and Damocles-equipped Rafales were used over Libya in 2011. Efforts to include MBDA’s Meteor long-range air-air missiles are ongoing. Some sources refer to Rafales fielded with all of these modifications as Rafale F4s, but the type has not been formally defined yet.
Nuclear ASMP-A capability is irrelevant to exports, but the addition of an AESA radar and full independent precision strike capability will go a long way toward making the Rafale more competitive with challengers like American F-16/15/18s, Saab’s JAS-39NG Gripen, EADS’ Eurofighter Typhoon, and the oncoming F-35 program.
Dassault’s Rafale: Program
Le Bourget display, 2005 (click to view full)
Unfortunately for the Rafale, 1985 proved a perilous time to begin an expensive decade-plus weapons project. The end of the Cold War led to a severe funding crunch. Development took a long time, and fielding was delayed for many years. That delay left Rafales with great potential as a 4+ generation fighter, but limited operational capabilities compared to even previous-generation aircraft.
The first operational Rafale-M aircraft was delivered in 2000, to the Marine Nationale, and the type entered full service in 2004. Plans call for delivery of up to 60 Rafale Ms.
The end of 2004 saw initial delivery of 2-seat Rafale B fighters to the French air force, and 2005 saw delivery of the first single-seat Rafale C. The aircraft entered service with the air force in 2006. All Rafale B/C fighters have been delivered as F2s or F3s. Current plans call for delivery of 234 Rafale B/C aircraft by the end of the program, but actual numbers may well be lower.
For previous French fighters, domestic production has been supplemented, and subsidized, by strong export sales. To date, that has not been the case for the Rafale. Questionable precision ground attack capabilities for Rafale F1-F2s, coupled with limited integration beyond French weapons, have hurt the aircraft badly on the export market. To date, it has lost export opportunities in Algeria (SU-30MKA, Rafale was a longshot), Greece (Eurofighter, then F-16),Morocco (F-16C/D), The Netherlands (F-35A or JAS-39NG), Norway (F-35A), Saudi Arabia(Eurofighter), Singapore (F-15SG), South Korea (F-15K), Switzerland (JAS-39), and the UAE (F-16E/F). Other losses are rumored.
Rafale-B (click to view full)
Despite Dassault’s rosy projections for the global fighter market, therefore, this difficulty in finding foreign orders has choked expected investments and started to feed back into platform modernization issues. By 2006, the French armed forces had ordered just 120 Rafales (82 Rafale A-C for the Armée de l’Air, 38 Rafale M for the Marine Nationale) of the planned 294. About 70 Rafales had been delivered by 2009, when a new French purchase raised the order book to 180; but 2009 also saw production cut from 14 to 11 aircraft per year. This is seen as the minimum necessary to maintain the production line.
Additional multi-year buys are possible. Nevertheless, absent export orders, a combination of deteriorating global finances, future demographic crunches in Europe, and the advent of unmanned UCAV projects like the nEUROn throw additional Rafale production orders into question.
As the British have demonstrated, one way to improve a jet’s affordability is to improve maintenance contracts. In 2008, the French defense ministry’s SIMMAD signed a 10-year “Rafale Care” contract with Dassault that paid for availability and flight-hours, rather than spares and man-hours. The British approach would have eventually built toward a contract that made Dassault responsible for all sub-contractors as well, but a decade-long 2012 contract between SIMMAD and Thales made it clear that France’s approach is trending instead to a set of modular performance-based contracts with major suppliers.
Once the French approach has several years of data behind it, that kind of future cost certainty may be helpful on the export front, where fully modernized Rafale versions may be about toreap their first export win in Brazil, were picked as 1 of 2 finalists in India’s MMRCAcompetition, and have reportedly been offered to Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar. They were also re-offered to the UAE, to replace their Mirage 2000-9s.