France has given the go-ahead to Dassault Aviation for a further iterative development of the Rafale combat aircraft, which will enable the integration of a number of new weapons and equipment.

Presented to the company by French defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian on a 10 January visit to the manufacturer's Mérignac plant, the contract will allow Dassault to upgrade the fourth-generation type to a new F3R standard.

Rafale over Mali - French air force

French air force

Enhancements include the integration of MBDA's Meteor beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile and the latest version of the Sagem AASM Hammer air-to-surface guided munition. Earlier versions were used by the French air force during operations in Libya during 2011, and in Mali during 2013.

The newest iteration of Thales's PDL-NG laser designation pod will also be added, says Dassault. This is the subject of a separate development contract awarded by France's DGA defence procurement agency.

Risk-reduction activities on the pod were conducted throughout 2013, and Thales says it aims to begin series production in 2018. The PDL-NG is designed to be integrated with both the Rafale and Dassault's legacy Mirage 2000D.

The enhancements to the Rafale are comparable to the additions to be made to the capabilities of the rival Eurofighter Typhoon and Saab Gripen fighters in Europe.

Despite losing out on several recent export deals, notably in Brazil where the Gripen NG was preferred for the nation's 36-aircraft F-X2 requirement, Dassault believes the latest enhancement package will boost the Rafale's overseas sales potential.

Validation of the F3R standard is anticipated for 2018.