French Fusion

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Things are coming together for Dassault’s Rafale fighter, with secured French orders under its belt and the chance of winning its first export order

This year represents a period of consolidation for France’s Rafale fighter programme, with the Dassault design in production for the French armed forces and in the last phase of a contest to supply Singapore with a new-generation combat aircraft – an opportunity that could deliver the type’s first export success.

Also comprising Snecma and Thales, the Rafale International industry team has domestic orders for 120 aircraft, its most recent being a December 2004 contract to deliver 59 Rafales to the French air force and navy from 2008 to 2012. Worth €3.1 billion ($3.8 billion), this built on earlier batches of 13 and 48 aircraft, and indicated the French government’s commitment to the programme at a key stage in the Singapore contest – a decision on which is expected later this year.

The French air force will receive most of France’s planned 294 Rafales, with 82 of its 234 aircraft now under contract and deliveries running at a rate of around one a month. On 3 June the service accepted its first single-seat Rafale C in the F2 standard, joining four two-seat Bs already supporting training at the air force’s flight evaluation centre at Mont-de-Marsan.

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First frontline unit

A further nine B/Cs will have been delivered by year-end, forming the nucleus of the air force’s first frontline Rafale unit. To begin operating from Saint-Dizier airbase in September 2006, 1/7 Squadron will be equipped with five single- and 15 two-seat fighters. The air force’s next two Rafale squadrons will be established at Saint-Dizier and Mont-de-Marsan, respectively.

Dubbed an “omnirole” fighter by its developers, the Rafale is built in three versions with 80% commonality: the air force’s B and C variants, and the French navy’s single-seat Rafale M carrierborne fighter. Each is powered by two Snecma M88-2 turbofans and has a maximum take-off weight of around 24.5t, including an external load of weapons, fuel and/or targeting and reconnaissance pods totalling 9.5t. Three configurations are funded – the F1 air-superiority standard in use by the navy since late 2001, and the F2 and F3 standards, which will progressively add expanded ground-attack and multirole mission capabilities.

The F2 standard being introduced with the air force is set to achieve initial operational capability late this year, with full utility to follow the delivery of a software update in early 2006. The new configuration expands the F1’s payload of MBDA Magic 2 infrared and Mica EM active radar-guided air-to-air missiles and basic electronic-warfare suite with enhanced ground attack, communications and self-defence capabilities.

Systems added include MBDA’s infrared-guided Mica IR and Scalp-EG cruise missile, Sagem’s AASM modular air-to-surface missile and a Link 16 datalink. The F2 configuration also introduces Thales’s passive front-sector optronics suite, which comprises infrared search and track and TV sensors plus a laser rangefinder, and Thales’s Spectra integrated electronic-warfare system, which combines missile warning system, radar and laser warning receivers and electronic countermeasures equipment.

The Mica IR and Scalp-EG have been fully cleared for operational use on the Rafale, with eight Scalp-EGs released during testing, including one mission-representative sortie conducted from the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle. Air force B/Cs will carry two of the weapons on underwing pylons, with the M to carry one on its centreline station. Nine test releases of Sagem’s AASM powered air-to-surface weapon have also taken place from France’s Cazaux test range, with three more scheduled for the near future. The global positioning/inertial navigation-guided weapon is carried on a triple ejectro rack, and aircraft carrier operations have also been successfully demonstrated.

Next year Dassault will resume Rafale M deliveries to the French navy in the F2 configuration, with these to expand the service’s 10-strong fleet of F1-configured fighters. The navy has operated the Rafale for over four years and completed several deployments aboard the Charles de Gaulle since December 2001.

However, formal entry into service was not declared until June 2004 with its Flotille 12 unit based at Landivisiau and a second squadron will not follow until at least 2007.

Naval pedigree

In total, the navy will receive 60 Rafales, with 38 of these ordered so far. All these aircraft will be Ms, with the navy having scrapped a plan to acquire two-seat N variants after assessing the costs involved. “It was not that the aircraft was expensive to develop and acquire, but due to the cost of training additional aircrew,” says Dassault pilot adviser Jean Camus. The navy’s first two-seater was already in build at the time of this decision, but subsequently became a single-seat C for the air force. Operations of the navy’s first 10 F1 aircraft have led to positive feedback. “The navy is now fully satisfied with this aircraft,” says Pierre-Cyril Delanglade, the company’s Rafale director at Istres. These aircraft will be upgraded directly to the F3 software standard from early next decade, he adds.

Now in the early stages of flight testing following a February 2004 production approval by France’s DGA procurement agency, the F3 standard will enable the Rafale to flourish into a truly multi-role weapon system. Aircraft delivered after 2008 will be armed with MBDA’s AM39 Exocet anti-ship and ASMP-A nuclear missiles and laser-guided bombs to be designated by the Thales-developed Damocles targeting pod and Sagem’s Gerfaut helmet-mounted display. They will also receive Thales’s Reco NG reconnaissance pod, a major production order for which is expected early next month.

Data fusion

With the expansion of systems capabilities through the F2 and F3 software enhancements, fusing the mass of data collected by on-board sensors will take on even greater significance to operators of the future Rafale. “Without this you cannot have effective multi-sensor management, because as soon as the situation goes beyond basic you are lost,” says Camus. The aircraft’s weapons and other systems are being integrated with a new modular data processing unit, which will be more capable and reliable than the F1’s baseline processor and offer increased growth potential, he adds.

It is the Thales-developed RBE2 radar that will deliver the Rafale’s so-called omnirole capability, as it is capable of conducting air-to-air, air-to-surface and anti-ship duties during a single sortie, and of providing air-to-ground mapping and air-to-ground targeting simultaneously. The Rafale team is already promoting a post F3-standard enhancement to the current system, which will replace the RBE2’s front end with an active electronically scanned array (AESA) offering expanded capability and reduced maintenance.

France last July provided initial funding for the AESA development, which builds on Thales’s involvement in Europe’s multinational AMSAR radar technology demonstrator effort, and a prototype has already undergone limited flight trials. Describing the current AESA design as “mature, but not sustainable”, Jean-Francois Ghignoni, Thales Airborne Systems’ Rafale export programme manager, says: “By 2012 we will make it maintainable and affordable.” However, Dassault believes the advanced radar technology could be delivered sooner if selected by an export customer.

France opted to delay the Rafale’s ability to drop laser-guided weapons until F3 deliveries as its armed forces already have an extensive capability in this field using air force Mirage 2000D and navy Super Etendard Modernise strike aircraft. However, the Rafale has already released laser-guided stores against targets designated by another platform. OtherF3 weapons integration has already begun using the navy’s first production aircraft, with carrier suitability tests completed with the Exocet and the ASMP-A nuclear weapon, along with the Damocles targeting pod. In the longer term, a notionalF4 configuration is expected to introduce MBDA’s Meteor beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile.

France’s DGA procurement agency has yet to outline when it will place its next production order for the Rafale, and debate continues within the French armed forces over the mix of single- and two-seat strike aircraft to be acquired. While the navy reversed its plans to introduce the two-seat Rafale N, the air force could decide to shift its planned fleet mix from one-third single-seat Cs and two-thirds two-seat B flight leaders to perhaps a 50:50 balance, believes Dassault.

The air force is also considering a concept of operations where its squadrons will incorporate pilots with differing areas of expertise, operating together to provide a multirole capability.

Formidable force

If the Rafale industry team can secure orders for all of the 294 aircraft previously mandated by France, the country will have a formidable strike force until at least 2040. By then the nation’s foray into unmanned combat air vehicle technology is likely to have delivered equally dramatic results.

CRAIG HOYLES/ISTRES