French next-generation fighter. France decided to developed its own fighter, rejecting the European EFA as too heavy for carrier use and too costly for export. Rafale is also a canarded delta, but has less angular lines than EFA. Extensive use was made of composite materials. Rafale A was the prototype, Rafale B is the two-seat version, Rafale C the single-seater, and Rafale M carrier fighter version. Four prototypes were flying in early 1997. Orders for 272 production aircraft for the French armed forces are expected.
France chose to produce the Rafale, which will begin operation in 1999, instead of the Eurofighter. The Rafale is lighter and smaller than the Eurofighter. It will be produced in three versions: Rafale M, Rafale C, and Rafale D. The M is the carrier version, with a spring-loaded nose wheel to help it into the air when launching. The C is a one-seater and the D it a somewhat stealthy version for the air force.
Type: Rafale C
KILLER ANGELS BY BILL SWEETMAN (November 2002)
France's Rafale has fire, but will glory remain a mirage?The Dassault Rafale is a relatively small airplane (it does not need folding wings to fit on a carrier) that carries a very heavy load. The Rafale has an operating empty weight of around 22,000 pounds and was initially designed with a maximum take-off weight of 49,600 pounds. That figure has now been increased to 54,000 pounds, and Dassault is preparing a further jump to 60,000 pounds.
Without fuel or weapons, a Rafale weighs some 3,000 pounds more than a F-16C, but it can take off 10,000 pounds heavier. This allows the Rafale to carry as much as 21,000 pounds of external stores in addition to 9,000 pounds of internal fuel. With twin conformal fuel tanks holding a total of 600 US gallons of fuel - designed and flight-tested by Dassault during its campaign to win Korea's fighter contest - the Rafale can perform a 1,000-nm-radius strike mission, carrying both heavy air-to-surface weapons and air-to-air missiles. Despite these capabilities, the Rafale has failed to win a single export order to date, although it entered hard-fought campaigns in the United Arab Emirates and Korea. Singapore is getting close to a decision on a future high-end fighter aircraft. The Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) has apparently scooped much of the available world market, at least for now, so Singapore, which wants airplanes before the JSF is ready, is a unique opportunity for European contenders, such as the Eurofighter Typhoon and its French rival, the Rafale.
Meanwhile, in late August, the Rafale's older stable mate, the Mirage 2000, remains in the running for an initial 24-aircraft order in Brazil, with another 36 aircraft likely to be sold in a follow-on deal. Since the early 1990s, the Mirage has been infused with much of the technology originally developed for Rafale - and even some more advanced features - and the Mirage and Sweden's Gripen (see "Lion of the Sky,"JED , April 2002) have been the most successful challengers to a US monopoly in the fighter business.
The Rafale, like most of its contemporaries, has taken longer to develop than expected. The Rafale A technology demonstrator made its first flight in July 1986. After the breakdown of discussions between France and the four Eurofighter nations, the French Government decided to proceed unilaterally with full-scale development and production of Rafale in 1987. The first of four production-type prototypes flew in 1991.
Unlike the Gripen, the Rafale is an entirely national program with all-new, French-developed airframe, propulsion, avionics, and weapons. The only way to render such a program affordable, given the size of the French armed forces, was to designate the Rafale as the replacement for every combat aircraft in service, from the Navy's ancient Vought F-8E(FN) Crusaders to the Air Force's Mirage IVP strategic reconnaissance aircraft. The result has been a very expensive program, which has competed with other projects - the Navy's nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle and the Army's Tiger helicopter, for instance - for a finite and fluctuating budget, leading to a long delay in funding production.
However, the Navy's needs are urgent, and the carrier-based Rafale M has become the first Rafale variant to be delivered. The first Rafale squadron, Flotille 12F, was formed in May 2001 and is now working up aboard the Charles de Gaulle . Seven aircraft were deployed on the carrier in the Indian Ocean earlier this summer, and the squadron is expected to be declared fully operational shortly, with ten aircraft. According to French executives, some unofficial training engagements have already taken place between Rafales and US Navy F/A-18s. On June 9, 2002, Rafale Ms of the French Navy operating from the Charles de Gaulle participated in a joint patrol with American fighters. Although the assignment was for reconnaissance over the tense India-Pakistan border and no shots were fired, it marked the official combat debut of the aircraft (see "It Takes Two to Interoperate,"JED , August 2002).
An order for 20 aircraft announced at the end of 2001 brings total firm orders to 61 aircraft (36 for the French Air Force and 25 for the Navy). Deliveries of the first 13-aircraft batch - comprising ten operational Rafale Ms for the Navy and three two-seat Rafale Bs for Air Force testing - are nearly complete. Another 28 aircraft should be delivered by January 2006, and 20 more should follow by February 2007. The first operational aircraft will reach the French Air Force in March 2004, and the first operational squadron is due to form in 2006.
The total domestic requirement for Rafale is 294 aircraft: 60 Rafale M and BM for the Navy, 139 two-seat land-based aircraft and 95 single-seat Air Force variants. The current plan calls for deliveries to continue until 2019.
Fire on HighThe Thales RBE2 radar is of the passive electronically-scanned-array (ESA) type, like the B-1's Northrop Grumman APQ-164, with a single power source, transmitter, receiver, and a physically fixed array of phase-shifter modules to steer the beam. The radar has a single beam - unlike the active ESA used on the F-22 and JSF - but it can be pointed instantly in any direction so that it can use a wide variety of interleaved modes. Dassault describes it as the difference between "track while scan" and "track here while scan there." For example, the RBE2 can readily track airborne targets while searching for a target on the ground or providing a ground profile for terrain-following flight.
The passive ESA sacrifices range and sensitivity compared with an active array or the modern mechanically scanned radars used on the Gripen and Typhoon. However, according to Dassault, the passive array was chosen for the initial versions, because the customer wanted the ability to interleave different modes, and the active array was far from mature. Also, the French Air Force operates AWACS early-warning aircraft, and the Navy has E-2C Hawkeyes, with the result that extreme detection range is less important.
The radar is backed up by optical and passive electronic-detection systems. Located immediately behind the radar is the front-sector optronic (FSO) system, produced by Thales. The FSO has two optical heads. On the right is a long-range infrared search and track (IRST), operating in the long-wave IR band, which detects point IR sources over a wide field of view. On the left is a combat-identification sensor, which combines an imaging sensor (daylight video on the prototype and mid-wave IR in production aircraft) and a laser rangefinder. It can track a single target in the front sector and display an enlarged image in the cockpit, and is normally aimed automatically at the most threatening target. If the rules of engagement require visual identification, the Rafale pilot can declare a target as hostile well outside normal visual range.
Information from the Spectra EW suite, the radar, and the OSF are brought together through modular mission computers and presented to the pilot and back-seater via a modern cockpit with 160 square inches of active display space - a close second to the 180 square inches on the larger F-22 and rather more than the Typhoon.
The Rafale cockpit hardware includes a number of unusual or unique features. The large central screen, which normally hosts the main tactical-situation display, is collimated at infinity. The physical optics of the "head-level display" (HLD) are designed so that the top of the HLD is directly below the head-up display (HUD). (On most other fighters, there is a small up-front control panel under the HUD and above the main central display.) Imagery from the identification sensor can be displayed on a window in the HLD. This system allows the pilot to switch from the short-term HUD view to the larger tactical picture without refocusing his eyes or dropping his gaze below the head-up display (HUD).
Contrary to US or other European practice, the Rafale cockpit uses touch-screen panels. The 6-x-6-in. screens on either side of the HLD are touch-sensitive, and there is a touch-control cursor panel beneath the HLD. One advantage of touch-screen is that it provides more glass area in the same space by eliminating the ring of bezel switches around each screen. The Rafale pilot will be issued special silk-lined leather gloves, with no stitching on the fingertips, and a chamois insert, for wiping the screens, above the fingers.
The entire fighter is highly automated, with a single all-electric throttle for both engines and a single start switch. A direct-voice-input (DVI) system is incorporated, with a 50-300-word vocabulary, and Sextant's Topsight helmet-mounted display will be incorporated from the mid-2000s.
The fused tactical display is reminiscent of the F-22's, with a "god's-eye" view of the battle replacing separate sensor displays. Different colors and shapes are used to distinguish hostiles from friendlies, and targets are automatically prioritized. Complementing the god's-eye view is an inset display which shows the relative altitude of the Rafale and its targets.
Despite all this automation, the French air force decided in the early 1990s that most of its operational Rafales would be Rafale B two-seaters. According to Dassault executives, this was not a matter of the pilot-vehicle interface failing to measure up to expectations. Rather, the service concluded that many Rafale missions would be longer and flown in more complex environments than expected. The French Navy is following suit, and as many as 40 of its 60 aircraft will be two-seat Rafale BM fighters.
Like most current combat aircraft, the Rafale is being delivered in successively improved versions. The first operational Rafales are to the F1 standard, providing an early air-to-air capability for the French Navy. A contract for development of the F2 standard-identified as Block 05 for export-was awarded in January 2001. It introduces air-to-surface radar modes and the FSO system. It will also be equipped to carry the Thales Damocles laser-designation pod. Damocles is a lightweight, slim-line pod incorporating a mid-wave focal-plane array infrared imager, and can be fitted with a navigation FLIR in the pylon.
In early 2001, the Rafale International team (Dassault, Snecma, and Thales) committed to the development of an active AESA (AESA) for the Thales RBE2 radar and the uprated M88-3 engine, both of which will be ready for the F3/Block 10 version in 2006. The AESA will be based on technology developed under the Thales/BAE Airborne Multi-mode Solid-state Active-array Radar (AMSAR) program, and will provide greater range and reliability than the passive ESA on the early Rafale. It will be able to be retrofitted to existing aircraft. Another feature introduced with the Block 3 will be a high-resolution synthetic-aperture-radar (SAR) mode for use with GPS/inertially guided weapons.
Another F3/Block 10 feature is the Thales Recce NG (new generation) reconnaissance pod, now under development and being offered for export. Recce NG is a near-real-time system that incorporates the pod and a complete ground segment, including mission planning, a mobile ground terminal, and an exploitation station. With a rotating head, visible and IR focal-plane arrays and a high-speed IR scanner, the Recce NG pod covers night and day reconnaissance from both high and low altitudes.
Teeth of the WindThe Rafale EW suite, known as Spectra, is one of the most powerful systems installed on a fighter aircraft and is intimately associated with the unique approach to stealth and survivability designed into the Rafale. Dassault executives describe the Rafale as discreet rather than being stealthy in the sense of a F-22. To avoid detection, it combines avionics, tactics, and reduced radar reflectivity with some techniques that have not been directly revealed and are apparently unique.
The first element of discretion is that Spectra's receiver system and the FSO help detect and track targets without using radar. Spectra incorporates a radio-frequency (RF) detection system, a missile-approach warning sensor, and a laser-warning system and provides full 360-degrees coverage. The RF detection subsystem uses prominent square-section antennas, mounted on the lower corners of the engine inlets and in the rear of the fin-top pod, covering 120 degrees each. The receiver antennas use interferometric techniques to measure a signal's angle of arrival within less than 1 degree and are designed so that they do not have a large radar-cross-section (RCS) contribution.
The Rafale is also designed to use terrain masking, particularly at night or in bad, weather when visually cued short-range surface-to-air weapons are less effective. With its maneuverability and a high degree of cockpit automation, the fighter is designed to fly a terrain-avoidance/threat- avoidance profile at 5.5 g and 100 feet in altitude. The RBE2 and a terrain-referenced navigation system, using stored terrain data, are used to provide redundant flight guidance.
Rafale makes extensive use of radar-absorbent material (RAM) in the form of paints and other materials, Dassault engineers have said. RAM forms a saw-toothed pattern on the wing and canard trailing edges, for instance. The aircraft is designed to so that its untreated radar signature is concentrated in a few strong "spikes," which are then suppressed by the selective use of RAM.
Spectra's active jamming subsystem uses phased-array antennas located at the roots of the canards. Dassault has stated that the EW transmit antennas can produce a pencil beam compatible with the accuracy of the receiver system, concentrating power on the threat while minimizing the chances of detection.
But there is more to Spectra than conventional jamming. Pierre-Yves Chaltiel, a Thales engineer on the Spectra program, remarked in a 1997 interview that Spectra uses "stealthy jamming modes that not only have a saturating effect, but make the aircraft invisible... There are some very specific techniques to obtain the signature of a real LO [low-observable] aircraft." When asked if he was talking about active cancellation, Chaltiel declined to answer.
Earlier this year, Thales and European missile-builder MBDA disclosed that they were working on active-cancellation technology for cruise missiles and had already tested it on a small unmanned aerial vehicle, using a combination of active and passive techniques to manage radar signature. This revelation makes it considerably more likely that active cancellation is already being developed for Rafale.
Active cancellation is a LO technique in which the aircraft, when painted by a radar, transmits a signal which mimics the echo that the radar will receive - but one half-wavelength out of phase, so that the radar sees no return at all. The advantage of this technique is that it uses very low power, compared with conventional EW, and provides no clues to the aircraft's presence; the challenge is that it requires very fast processing and that poorly executed active cancellation could make the target more rather than less visible.
The complexity of active cancellation could account for Spectra's high price tag, estimated in 1997 as "several billion francs" (equivalent to the high hundreds of millions of US dollars) for research and development. One of four Rafale prototypes was dedicated to Spectra tests, along with a Falcon 20 flying testbed. Four new large anechoic chambers were built to support the Spectra project, including one which is large and well equipped enough to operate the complete system in a fully detailed electromagnetic environment.
Spectra's RF systems are backed up by a laser-warning system, an optical missile-launch-warning system, and a full range of expendable countermeasures. There is no towed decoy system.
On the weapons side, the F2/05 Rafale will carry the IR version of the MBDA MICA air-to-air missile. The Rafale is unique in being designed around a single missile, MICA, which has been developed in active-radar and IR versions. Both versions feature a data-link to provide mid-course guidance (like AMRAAM) and vectored thrust for short-range agility. Unlike other IR missiles, therefore, MICA can be launched before the seeker locks, on and can perform a completely silent beyond-visual-range attack. The F2/05 will also carry the MBDA Storm Shadow/Scalp cruise missile.
Whether AESA will be fitted to French F3 aircraft remains to be seen. The French Government may decide to stay with the current RBE2 for cost reasons but is supporting the development of the AESA for export customers.
However, the F3/Block 10 will introduce the Sagem AASM (armement air-sol modulaire, or modular air-to-surface weapon). With a maximum weight of 750 pounds, AASM combines a standard bomb body with a tail kit that incorporates a small rocket booster and a nose section with steerable canard fins. The nose section incorporates either a GPS/inertial guidance system or a GPS/inertial system plus an imaging-IR seeker.
The IR seeker can be programmed before launch with a template of the target derived from reconnaissance imagery. This, according to Sagem, makes the AASM less susceptible to GPS jamming or outages than most weapons in its class, and gives it meter-class accuracy against precision targets. With rocket boost, the weapon has a maximum range of 27 nm. It is due to enter service in 2005. The Rafale will be fitted with a three-point "smart rack" developed by Rafaut, allowing it to carry up to six independently targeted AASMs.
Dassault, Thales, and Snecma have no doubts that the Rafale embodies world-class technology, and its failure to secure export orders is clearly a source of frustration, as evidenced by Dassault's attempt to file a lawsuit against the Korean government following Korea's choice of the F-15. There are, however, a number of factors that have held the Rafale back. Along with the Typhoon, which has won a single contest in Austria, it is one of the more capable and expensive aircraft on the market. The Rafale team argues persuasively that its unique features work and address operational needs, but some customers may prefer the tried US-type approach to missile armament or cockpit ergonomics. Above all, the French government's drip-feed of funds into the program does not engender confidence that the necessary upgrades will be carried out - even though the program is, in reality, as secure as any. Singapore will indeed be an important test for the aircraft.